From the old Gumstix boards to everyone’s favorite Raspberry Pi, common single-board computers (SBCs) have traditionally had at least one thing in common: an ARM processor. But that’s not to say hackers and makers haven’t been interested in an SBC with a proper x86 processor. Which is why the $99 Hackboard 2 is so exciting. With a modern x86 chip at the core it’s akin to a small footprint desktop motherboard, but with all the extra features that we’ve come to expect in a hacker-friendly SBC.
So what’s the big deal? In a word, compatibility. The fact that these diminutive computing devices shied away from the x86 architecture that most of us have been using on our desktops and laptops since the 1980s originally introduced software compatibility issues, but this was largely outweighed by the advantages of ARM. The latest NVIDIA Jetson is running on an ARM chip for the same reason the smartphone in your pocket is: they’re smaller, cheaper, and more energy efficient than x86.
However they’re rarely more powerful. Even the latest and greatest Raspberry Pi 4, often touted as a viable desktop replacement thanks to its quad core Cortex-A72, will get absolutely trounced by the pokiest of Intel’s Celeron CPUs. The performance gap is just too great. While the Pi can admirably handle most of the tasks the hacker community asks of it, there will always be a call for a board that puts raw processing power before anything else.
Sucking down nearly 40 watts at full tilt, the Hackboard 2 isn’t the SBC you’d want to use for a solar powered weather station. But if you’re putting together a set top box to play back video and run the occasional emulator, its Celeron N4020 processor and Intel UHD 600 GPU represent the most powerful combination available for a device of this size.
The Total Package
That Celeron processor also means the Hackboard 2 can run Windows, if you’re into that sort of thing. While hacker types are usually more than happy with running Linux or potentially BSD on their ARM boards, there’s unquestionably a subset of the community that feels more comfortable with Clippy looking over their shoulder. Or maybe they’ve got some project that requires a piece of Windows software that doesn’t play well with WINE. Either way, getting a proprietary OS preinstalled on your SBC is going to cost you: it’s an extra $40 to get your Hackboard 2 with a copy of Windows 10 Pro on its 64 GB eMMC.
While we can’t complain about the CPU and GPU given what the competition is packing, the fact that there’s only 4 GB of RAM onboard is something of a disappointment. Especially when the cheaper Raspberry Pi 4 includes up to 8 GB. It’s certainly enough for most Linux distributions, but pretty skimpy for a Windows box. Depending on what software you’re hoping to install, it might even be a non-starter. If you’re looking for a cheap machine to run Photoshop on, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
On the plus side, the Hackboard 2 has no shortage of expandability options. Storage certainly won’t be a problem with the dual NVMe M.2 slots, and there’s three USB 3.0 ports to connect whatever high-speed gadgets you might need. There’s also a Pi-compatible 40 pin GPIO header, as well as connectors for a camera, touch screen, and eDP display. When you want to reach out and touch someone, the board has dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth 5.1, and Gigabit Ethernet. One of those NVMe slots can even be fitted with a cellular modem.
All told, the Hackboard 2 is a very impressive SBC at a more than reasonable price. Not offering a version with more RAM seems a pretty serious oversight, but of course it took awhile before the 8 GB variant of the Pi 4 hit the market as well. We’d certainly welcome some similar post-release SKU shuffling for the Hackboard, but at a hundred bucks, it’s pretty hard to complain.
If you’re wondering how the release of the original Hackboard 1 somehow passed you by; it didn’t. There was indeed an earlier version of the Hackboard, but it was considered more of a pathfinder prototype. While never released commercially, we were sent one of these prototype boards by Crowd Supply to give us a taste of what the team had in mind for the final hardware.
While we naturally appreciate getting a hands-on with the hardware, this put us in somewhat of an unusual situation. For one thing, there’s no point in doing any benchmarks on the prototype Hackboard since it has a different CPU than the commercial version. Several notable hardware changes have also been made, perhaps chief among them the removal of the prototype’s micro SD slot in favor of a second NVMe M.2 slot. In short, the prototype is different enough from the hardware that paying customers will receive in 2021 that doing a proper review just doesn’t seem appropriate.
So what can we say about the prototype Hackboard? Well, it exists. That should come as a comfort to anyone who’s worried about the team’s ability to deliver the goods. While they’ve still got work ahead of them to make the changes necessary for the Hackboard 2, it’s not as if they have to start from scratch.
More practically, it’s nice to have an SBC that’s essentially just a tiny PC. It has a traditional BIOS menu that allows you to easily configure all the hardware and change around the boot order. Enabling USB booting allowed me to start up the Arch and Mint installers without a problem, and everything worked out of the box.
Compared to ARM boards that generally need to run a custom build of your favorite Linux distribution, the Hackboard will be happy with whatever you throw at it. Naturally that means you can buy the $99 version and install your own copy of Windows after the fact as well.
Again, this isn’t the final hardware and things will absolutely change between now and when the Hackboard 2 starts shipping out to customers. But the prototype is undoubtedly impressive, and there’s arguably nothing on the market that can compete with it at this price. We hope to bring you a full review in the future, but until then, this is certainly a product to keep a close eye on.