[Review] CHIP: The Little ARM Computer that Tries

Unfortunately, the company (Next Thing Co) is no longer in business. Small numbers are available on eBay. Official software repos are no longer being updated, but some customers are working to remedy that.

When the Raspberry Pi was released in early 2012, it touched off an ARM computing revolution. Millions of computer boards have been sold and a new industry grew up around small ARM powered computer boards. There were many copycats because others wanted to get in on the new technological gold rush. One of those groups was named Next Thing Co and launched a product named the CHIP.

What is the CHIP?

Review CHIP single board computer

The CHIP first appeared on a Kickstarter campaign which was launched on May 7, 2015. Their goal was to raise $50,000 to build the boards. The campaign ended with over $2 million raised.

To give you an idea of what the CHIP has to offer, I created the table below to compare the capabilities of the Raspberry Pi 2 (which was released before Kickstarter campaign) and the most recent Raspberry Pi 3.

C.H.I.PRaspberry Pi 2Raspberry Pi 3
ReleasedMay 2016February 2015February 2016
CPU1 GHZ900 MHz1.2 GHz
Memory512 MBI GB1 GB

As you can tell by looking at this chart, that the CHIP had slightly more processing power than the Pi 2. It also had half the RAM of both. With that in mind, let me tell you about my experiences.

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My Journey to the CHIP

I had heard about the CHIP when it first came out but didn’t take part in the Kickstarter campaign. As months went by, I read articles about shipments being delayed and backers stuck waiting for their devices to arrive. Because of that, I kept the CHIP in my mental wishlist but didn’t take the plunge. Then a year later in July of 2016, I took another look at it and eventually purchased one. Frustratingly, the delays were not over. My CHIP didn’t arrive until the middle of November.

I recorded an unboxing video for you people. Have a look at it and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more such updates.

The CHIP as a Desktop

Before powered up the CHIP for the first time, it was recommended that I update it first. Since the CHIP has built-in storage (unlike the PIs which use MicroSD cards), I had to plug it into my computer to flash it. I used my Windows 7 desktop to do that job because Chrome was already installed. However, it took quite a bit of fumbling to get the flashing software to recognize the device.

After about ten attempts and a couple browser restarts, I successfully flash the CHIP to the latest OS. Since I also purchased the VGA adapter, I was able to plug it into my existing monitor. The CHIP only has one USB port, so I used a Logitech wireless mouse with a Unifying dongle and a Bluetooth keyboard. The mouse worked right away, which made me very happy. I had to do some setup to get the keyboard working, but that is normal.

The CHIP runs Debian and version 4.4 of the Linux kernel. If you plug it into a monitor, you are using a XFCE desktop. When I ran screenfetch, it said that I was using a little over 200 MB of RAM out of 500. That doesn’t seem like much room to open multiple applications.

I tried to run IceWeasel (Debian’s rebranding of Firefox). It ran, but very slow especially with more than two tabs open. The same was true for LibreOffice.

The team from Next Thing Co included a nice little application to install new software. Available packages were listed by category and some were listed by desktop environment, like MATE and KDE. I was surprised to see the second one listed on a system that only has 500 MB of RAM.

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The CHIP as a Server

After being disappointed with the CHIP’s performance as a desktop, I decided to run it as a server. Before redoing so, I reflashed it for headless use (which took several tries to work). The main reason I reflashed it was to see if it freed up any extra space. It didn’t. I guess a desktop environment does not take up as much space as I thought.

The major problem I had getting going headless was connecting to it with my PC. Accord to the documentation, all you need to do is use ssh to connect to [email protected]. I tried this on both Windows 7 and Linux but was unable to connect. For some reason, the zero configuration networking feature wasn’t working.

Next, I tried using a serial connection via a USB cable. Unfortunately, the documentation on how to do this was very short and confusing. Even people I asked on the forum said it was confusing. Thankfully, they were very helpful.

Once I logged into the CHIP, I ran screenfetch again. This time it was only using 62MB of RAM. I tried to install NextCloud to how it ran as a personal cloud. but I was unable to get it to run. So, I decided to install Apache and use it as a local server to practice web development on. It might be slow for WordPress and other CMSs, but it should work pretty well.

Final Thoughts

Before proceeding, keep in mind this is the opinion of one guy, who’s more comfortable with Manjaro (Arch) than Debian. Also, I’m not exactly as sysadmin level user.

Not surprisingly, the CHIP did not have a great desktop experience. It was slow, but it was stable. It didn’t crash once, as you would expect from Debian. Getting the CHIP flasher to work was a major headache, but they recently updated and improved it so maybe that problem is fixed already. The documentation was confusing and hard to follow. I wish they had more distro or even OS choices. I’d love to try FreeBSD on this thing.

The CHIP worked a lot better as a server that you could just plug in and forget. In this use case, 500 MB of RAM is not an issue. It had both wifi and Bluetooth, which can’t be said for a bunch of ARM boards. There is a great community built up around this board, which makes it easy to get help on the forum.

I was to do a star rating of this board, I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

If you want to buy your own CHIP, you can get it here.

If you have any experience with the CHIP or any other ARM boards, let us know in the comments.

If you found this article interesting, please share it with your friends and family on your favorite social media sites.

About the author
John Paul Wohlscheid

John Paul Wohlscheid

My name is John Paul Wohlscheid. I'm an aspiring mystery writer who loves to play with technology, especially Linux. You can catch up with me at: http://johnpaulwohlscheid.work/

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