What Is a RISC V SBC and How Is It Better Than a Raspberry Pi?

Raspberry Pi has long dominated the consumer single-board computer market. Ever since the Pi’s launch in 2012, other SBC manufacturers have tried to steal the show with their own boards, but nothing stands out quite like the RISC-V options on the market. But what is a RISC-V SBC and how is it better than a Raspberry Pi?

What Is RISC-V?

RISC-V is an open-source standard instruction set architecture (ISA). An ISA is part of the model used to define how software interfaces with hardware components like a CPU. Following reduced instruction set computer (RISC) principles, RISC-V is unique in that it is open-source and anyone can use the ISA to develop CPUs/SoCs.

In essence, the RISC-V project provides manufacturers with the basic building blocks required to create hardware to compete with companies like ARM and Intel. RISC-V was first introduced back in 2010.

What Is a RISC-V SBC?

A RISC-V SBC is a single-board computer that utilizes a RISC-V CPU or SoC. Single-board computers are fully-functioning computers with a microprocessor, memory, and I/O all placed on a single PCB. Raspberry Pis are a great example of a popular SCB, but this brand uses ARM processors rather than RISC-V.

RISC-V SBCs work with many operating systems, though each OS has to include support for the RISC-V ISA. RISC-V SBC Linux is a popular choice, with distros like Ubuntu offering RISC-V support for many years.

RISC-V Board vs. Raspberry Pi: The Main Differences

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B board
Image Credit: Raspberry Pi

To compare a RISC-V SCB with a Raspberry Pi, you first have to explore the differences between a RISC-V processor and an ARM processor. Both of these processor architectures can run the same operating systems and can have similar processing power in the correct considerations. So, what makes them so unique?

RISC-V Is Open-Source, ARM Is Proprietary

ARM is proprietary technology owned by Arm Holdings. This means that any manufacturer that wants to fabricate their own ARM chips must pay royalties to Arm Holdings, while also getting permission to do their work in the first place.

RISC-V is entirely open-source, enabling manufacturers and engineers to create RISC-V processors without having to pay royalties in the process. Companies like Imagination Technologies take this even further by allowing license-free use of their existing SoC and CPU designs.

Greater Variety With RISC-V

Thanks to the open-source nature of RISC-V, there is the potential for a much wider variety of SBCs of this type than those with ARM processors. There are already high-performance examples of RISC-V SoCs on the market, and this is only going to become more prevalent as time goes by.

RISC-V vs. ARM: Investment & Time

While we are singing RISC-V’s praises, it’s worth considering one of the major downsides of this ISA. ARM processors have benefited from a lot more research, funding, and development than RISC-V. This means that it can be argued that RISC-V is being left behind, though this is changing as more people buy into the architecture.

It makes sense to learn more about the differences between RISC-V and ARM before you choose the board for you.

RISC-V vs. Raspberry Pi: Direct Board Comparison

risc-v chip

Comparing RISC-V vs Raspberry Pi SBCs is an excellent way to figure out which option is best for you. Each of the RISC-V boards we are going to discuss has a direct RPi alternative, but you can find RISC-V boards that fall outside of this criteria, too.

RISC-V boards tend to be more expensive than their RPi competitors, but the same can also be said for other ARM-based SBCs. This will change as time goes by and more companies adopt RISC-V.

Both Raspberry Pi boards and RISC-V SBCs are in high demand and short supply in today’s market. This is thanks to a number of factors, but you can overcome RPi and other SBC shortages with a little help.

MangoPi MQ Pro vs. Raspberry Pi Zero W

mangopi mq pro board
Image Credit: MangoPi

The MangoPi MQ Pro is a direct competitor to the Raspberry Pi Zero W; they have the same form factor, include many of the same specifications, and perform just as well as each other. Both boards feature a single-core SoC that clocks in at 1GHz. Both models also come with 512MB of RAM as standard, but the MangoPi MQ Pro can be upgraded to 1GB.

According to the user tests, the Allwinner D1 SoC found on the MangoPi outperforms the RPi Zero W by a slim margin. Aside from this difference, both boards are very similar to one another, featuring Wi-Fi/Bluetooth, 40-pin GPIO headers, and Mini-HDMI outputs. This means that pricing will be the largest difference for most users.

Note that there is also a superior Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W model which is based on a quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53 CPU.

MangoPi MQ Pro Raspberry Pi Zero W
CPU/SoC Allwinner D1 SoC with single C906 RISC-V Core at 1GHz Broadcom BCM2835 single-core at 1GHz
Memory 512MB or 1GB DDR3 RAM 512MB RAM
I/O USB-OTG Type-C, USB-Host Type-C, Mini-HDMI, 40-pin RPI-expand, 24-pin DVP/RGMII connector, TF card storage Micro-USB OTG, micro-USB power, Mini-HDMI, HAT-compatible 40-pin GPIO header, composite video/reset, CSI camera connector, microSD card storage
Connectivity Wi-Fi (802.11bgn), Bluetooth 2.1/4.2 Wi-Fi (802.11bgn), Bluetooth LE/4.1

StarFive VisionFive 2 vs. Raspberry Pi 4 Model B

starfive visionfive 2 sbc
Image Credit: StarFive Technology

The Raspberry Pi 4 Model B is RPi’s current flagship board. It features a powerful Cortex-A72 quad-core SoC that clocks in at 1.5GHz, and customers can choose from 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB of LPDDR4-3200 SDRAM. It also has an impressive amount of I/O connections available, including two Micro-HDMI ports that support dual 4K displays.

The StarFive VisionFive 2 features a similarly powerful SoC to the RPi 4 Model B. Clocking in at 1.5GHz, this hex-core SoC has four main cores and two secondary low-power cores and is available with 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB of LPDDR4 SDRAM. This board is far more powerful than the VisionFive V1 board that came before it, but it lacks the built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth that comes with the Raspberry Pi.

Both of these boards have benefits and downsides. The Raspberry Pi 4 Model B has two Micro-HDMI ports, while the VisionFive 2 only has a single HDMI port. Likewise, though, the VisionFive 2 features an M.2 M Key slot that supports fast SSDs, but the RPi 4 only has a microSD card slot for storage. When it comes to processing power, both boards are fairly compatible with one another.

StarFive VisionFive 2 Raspberry Pi 4 Model B
CPU/SoC StarFive JH7110 hex-core SoC at 1.5GHz Broadcom BCM2711 quad-core Cortex-A72 SoC at 1.5GHz
Memory 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB LPDDR4 SDRAM 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB LPDDR4-3200 SDRAM
I/O 2 x USB 3.0 ports, 2 x USB 2.0 ports, HAT-compatible 40-pin header, HDMI port, 4-pole stereo audio, USB Type-C 5V DC power, M.2 M key slot, microSD card storage 2 x USB 3.0 ports, 2 x USB 2.0 ports, HAT-compatible 40-pin header, 2 x Micro-HDMI ports, 4-pole stereo audio/composite video port, 5V DC power, microSD card storage
Connectivity 2 x Gigabit Ethernet (Wi-Fi dongle available) Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth LE/5.0

Honorable Mention: SiFive HiFive Unmatched Desktop RISC-V Board

sifive hifive unmatched
Image Credit: SiFive

Okay, so we lied when we said that all of these boards have a Raspberry Pi alternative. That is half of the reason that the HiFive Unmatched is only an honorable mention; the other half is because this board is discontinued.

As a full-size desktop motherboard, the SiFive HiFive Unmatched truly stands alone in the RISC-V market. It supports M.2 devices and PCI-E devices (like graphics cards), and it comes in the popular mini-ITX form factor. This means that it can fit inside normal desktop PC cases and it works with the components many people already own.

The HiFive Unmatched is one of the first desktop RISC-V boards available, and it comes equipped with a SiFive Freedom U740 five-core SoC. This is accompanied by 16GB of DDR4 memory and a range of I/O and connectivity, including four USB 3.2 ports, two M.2 slots, and a Gigabit Ethernet port.

As mentioned above, this board is discontinued and no longer available. Despite this, it is hard to ignore this RISC-V product thanks to its unique form factor and performance that sets it apart from regular SBCs and marks the potential beginning of the RISC-V desktop revolution. SiFive has teamed up with Intel and the companies are working together on a new RISC-V product that we will see in the near future.

Is a RISC-V SBC Better Than a Raspberry Pi?

Determining whether a RISC-V board is better than a Raspberry Pi is a challenge. Both markets are quite diverse with plenty of products to choose from, and many of the options offered from both sides have different purposes in mind. It’s always worth doing research for yourself when exploring products like this; you might find a RISC-V alternative we haven’t discussed.

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