[Review] CHIP: The Little ARM Computer that Tries

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.P Raspberry Pi 2 Raspberry Pi 3
Released May 2016 February 2015 February 2016
Price $9 $35 $35
CPU 1 GHZ 900 MHz 1.2 GHz
Memory 512 MB I GB 1 GB
Bluetooth Yes No Yes

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.

Suggested read
[Review] GeekBox: The Swiss Army Knife Of Mini PCs

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.

Suggested read
An Ubuntu User's Review Of Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu Edition

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.

Add comment

E-mail is already registered on the site. Please use the Login form or enter another.

You entered an incorrect username or password

Sorry that something went wrong, repeat again!

10 comments

by Newest
by Best by Newest by Oldest

@admin Have you seen/checked https://onion.io/

It would be nice if you could review that.

Thanks.

Author

I got one of those too, but haven't had a chance to play with it. That review will be coming.

Thanks. Look forward to it.

Pi Zero W has the exact same specs, plus wi-fi built in as wall for $10

My CHIP is in the miscellaneous/useless parts box. It would only run for a few minutes before turning itself off, so it never really booted. I don't begrudge the startup money, but it sure wasn't ready for distribution.

I love this website. I think it is a good one to extend my knowledge about technology and the world better.

I use a Chip as a network adblocker using Pi-Hole (https://pi-hole.net/), and it works well for that. I tried running a few self-hosted web apps, like Paperwork and Wallabag, but either ran into installation issues, or they ran too slowly.

Author

That sounds interesting. I'll have to take a look at pi-hole. What happens when you need to whitelist a site to get it to work? I might install WordPress, but I mainly want to use it to learn HTML, Javascript, and Python.

Pi-Hole has a web UI that is accessible on the local network. Thanks to a recent update, you can update the blacklist and whitelist from the web UI and have Pi-Hole parse them. Before that, you would have to issue a command to get Pi-Hole to recognize the additions to the whitelist and blacklist. There seems to be an issue with a handful of ad-serving domains that aren't blocked, but aside from that, it works pretty well.

ASUS Tinker Board anybody? Ok, it's nearly twice as much as a Raspberry Pi 3 but it does have 1gb wired ethernet. Sadly though it comes with 4 USB ports they are all USB 2.0 To all intent and purpose the Tinker Board looks just like a clone of the Pi 3. It does however have 2gb of RAM and a 1.8ghz CPU and if I recall correctly a 500mhz GPU. This as opposed to the PI's 1.2ghz CPU and 400mhz GPU. I think I have those figures correct but I am working from memory here so please forgive me if I have it wrong. In the tests I have seen the Tinker Board is only a tiny bit faster than a Pi 3. Personally I don't think it is worth the extra money over a Pi 3.