Saturday, 26 March 2016

Banana Pi M3

I've been waiting for this one, I ordered one from a German supplier several weeks ago, but after waiting 5 weeks I gave up and cancelled the order, after I spotted one half price on eBay.

There's a down side in that this one is the Rev1 version which uses 2amp max, micro USB power but I don't plan to hook it up to much so it shouldn't need the 3amp version in Rev 2. But that said it hated having an unpowered USB hub with Mouse, keyboard/mouse combo and a Wifi on refused to boot if they were plugged in. I resorted to just using the keyboard/mouse direct into one of its 2 USB, as wifi is on board.

The M3 is the Octa core system from Banana Pi, which competes with the amazing, Odroid XU4 in having 8 cores but its not quite as cool as it sounds since in truth the XU4 has 2x4 cores, so while you can allocate 4 cores to any app, you can't access all 8 in one app. But this does have the advantage that your OS and other apps are probably working on one core group while your app runs full speed on the other. The M3 has 8 actual cores which can all be accessed in theory meaning you really have full power on your app.

Speed is also a factor with this machine, it defaults to 1.2ghz, but can be overclocked up to 1.8Ghz or if you have a bit more cooling 2.0ghz. But I'm not too interested in any of that right now. I may boost it a little but I like to see the chips and won't cover them with heatsinks unless I have to, Research also shows that even attempting to overclock is going to fail, and in fact its best to keep it running at 1Ghz.

Graphically the GPU is a bit disappointing, given the effort to put CPU power in there, they could have done so much better than a PowerVR SGX544MP1 single core . Its an ok chip, well actually its a very fine chip,  faster I think than the single core Mali 400's that abound but not exactly a match for the CPU potential it has.

It runs OpenGLES2.0 but unlike the Odroid XU4 it can't (currently) handle ES3.0 which is a shame. It does however allow OpenCL compute coding, for more advanced coders than I, which I will play with in due course. I am excited to get some code working on them that can test the GPU power to find out if the multi core (6) GPU of the 600 series Mali on a XU4 is better or worse than this.

It does have a Gigabit Ethernet which is nice, and it has Sata connections, but I discovered on line that its not a true Sata, its USB emulated, so while its possible to hook up Sata drives to it, which is cool it won't have the performance you'd expect from a Sata Drive. In fact its terrible perfomance.

Some nice buttons for power and reset, and one called uboot, which I have no idea about, usual extras include IR and microphone, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth plus the usual lcd and debug ports and the ubiquitous GIO systems. Hardware wise though this is not a clone of the Pi, it does its own things its own ways, it just happens to run a version of Rasbian and share a liking for fruit pastry based nomenclature. Its unlikely any Raspberry hardware will work out of the box with it but again I don't plan to try, its just a target for me.

So lets get it going.
I assumed as this has cMMC memory on it, it would come supplied with something on board and boot direct, but it seems not, I think I will have to install it myself once I find an OS I like. So I burned a Rasbian distro on a 32Gb SD, which I downloaded from the Banana Pi site.

while I was waiting, I put it in its nice Perspex enclosure which has been sat on the shelf those 5 weeks waiting..

Sadly the Rasbian distro didn't work, so I tried Ubuntu...also no joy... But rather than get all Hulk on it and smash it into a thousand pieces as the voices in my head were saying. I decided to try a different SD and this time I got Ubuntu to work. It fired up even connected to WiFi and did what it was supposed to do. So maybe it has an issue with my 32MB generic SD card. I'll try it with Rasbian again another time.

The machine is suffering a little from a lack of power and it gets very hot, with apparently random crashes. I'll reluctantly add a heat-sink to it when I get some more in and see if that helps. Also it really needs to use a powered USB hub

But it connected to the dev PC and was able to run an SSH console, so it should not be too hard to get the beast to work. But I think I may at some point sell it on and try to get a Rev 2 model, as this is far too fussy.and I want to be sure crashes are caused by me not by a lack of power.
Software support is as always very poor, but I really can't blame the Banana people (or person) the community needs to step up to help and that will deliver improvements like the Rev2.

Though not on paper, at the Odroid XU4 levels of speed,or GPU power it does actually seem to run Ubuntu mate far faster and smoother than the X4U, I think however that's down to a lack of GPU acceleration on the Odroid machine which may be enabled here. It does crash though from time to time...grrr However I realized I was using a 1amp power unit so I'll try my monitors powered usb hub, which I think can do more than 1amp,  until I pick up a 2amp+ unit from somewhere.

Snooping though the libs there s a LOT of Raspberry Pi references, so it may be that the libs and code are for the RasPi and have been copied over but probably won't work...

So not the beast it promises to be, more of a petulant teen on its way to being a beast. I won't rush to get the Rev2 but I will keep an eye out on how it is received.

I have to add that after a quick look around their forums its populated by a lot of incredible negativity, the machine has faults for sure, but when people post solely to run it down and avoid an actual attempts at helping others to get it working its a sad kind of support.
I suspect however this is rather a directed targeting of hate at the makers. The makers themselves are clearly not well versed in English, so  it may be they are not too involved in the forums directly, but there is evidence of software updates and one or 2 people doing their best to make it work.

The M3 really fails to deliver if you are looking for a proper 8 core fast system, without heat sinks it tends to shut down cores and its rare you see all 8 cores available...but as a target for our tests it does do its job...maybe they will fix the software issues that are causing most of its problems...maybe not...its a brave attempt though

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