Cubietruck Plus – also known as the CubieBoard 5 – features a 2GHz Allwinner H8 8-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor. There’s also 2GB of DDR3 memory, 8GB of eMMC on-board storage, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI and DisplayPort outputs, 70 GPIO pins, a micro-SD slot and SATA 2 support for additional storage.
More importantly, though, there’s an on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio – an Ampak AP6330, offering 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrums, alongside Bluetooth 4 High Speed and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). This list of features makes it a natural competitor for the Raspberry Pi 3 and, on paper, the Cubietruck certainly has an edge.
While it’s larger than the Pi 3, measuring 112 x 84mm, the Cubietruck includes plenty of features its rival lacks: as well as on-board storage, SATA support and 5GHz Wi-Fi, there’s the DisplayPort output, Gigabit Ethernet, USB OTG support, infrared and even an on-board microphone – and that’s before we get to the four additional processor cores and extra 1GB of RAM.
Benchmarking puts the Cubietruck Plus in front of the Pi 3 as well. In single-threaded tests, the Cubietruck Plus has a small but measurable lead, scoring 744 Whetstone MWIPS and 2,969 Dhrystone MIPS compared to the Pi 3’s 711 MWIPS and 2,458 MIPS. The Cubietruck Plus also boasts 336MB/sec 1KB memory write and 402MB/sec 1GB memory read speeds, compared to the Pi 3’s 305MB/sec and 354MB/sec respectively. In multithreaded software, the extra cores of the Allwinner H8 also shine: the Cubietruck Plus finished a SysBench CPU test in just 25 seconds compared to the Pi 3’s 49 seconds, demonstrating nearly double the performance for highly parallel tasks.
The Cubietruck Plus achieves this speed through brute force, however. The Cortex-A53 cores of the Pi 3’s BCM2837 chip are undeniably more efficient than the Cortex-A7 cores used in the H8, and the Cubietruck Plus has to hit a 2GHz clock speed to gain the edge over its 1.2GHz rival.
Add the doubled core count and you end up with a direct impact on power draw: at load, the Cubietruck Plus hit 1.32A and idled at 0.75A, compared to the Pi 3’s more reasonable 0.58A and 0.31A respectively for the same workload.
Interestingly, though, this extra power draw doesn’t translate into excess heat. Unlike the bare bones Raspberry Pi 3, every Cubietruck Plus is supplied as a bundle that includes a small self-adhesive heatsink for the SoC. When applied, the externally measured temperature of the H8 never rose above 55°C – a far cry from the 100°C-plus of the Pi 3’s BCM2837 when a heatsink isn’t used. Strangely, though, a second chip can be seen getting just as hot as the SoC in thermal photography – the AXP818 power management controller, which allows the board to monitor and charge a connected battery.
The bundle also includes a number of other extras; a three-piece acrylic case offers space for a 2.5in SATA hard drive under the Cubietruck itself, or two drives if an optional RAID board is added. Meanwhile, the accessories box includes a USB OTG adaptor, a mini-USB cable for flashing purposes, a SATA data and power adaptor, and a USB power cable.
Software-wise, the 8GB of on-board storage is pre-loaded with a customised build of Android 4.4.2. This OS can be replaced with a customised Linaro Linux distribution for general-purpose computing tasks, and if you’re going to get the most out of the board, it’s a definite recommendation. Sadly, though, the version reviewed (v1.1) didn’t appear to support using the GPIO headers, nor was dual-display a possibility. These features are likely to be added in future revisions, but it’s worth bearing these issues in mind at the moment, and the same goes for the status LEDs, which are overly bright.
The Cubietruck Plus is impressively powerful, then, but there are one or two caveats in addition to the above to consider before leaping into a purchase. Chief among these issues is a pair of bottlenecks in the Ethernet and SATA controllers. The supposedly Gigabit Ethernet adaptor maxed out during testing at 379Mb/sec, which is admittedly higher than the 89Mb/sec of a Raspberry Pi, but still disappointingly low. Meanwhile, the SATA controller, unlike the one on the original Cubietruck, isn’t native and communicates with the SoC via USB 2.
The final issue is the price. Cubietruck Plus is four times the price of the Raspberry Pi 3 for at best double the performance. The extras in the bundle account for some of the price, as does the rough doubling of performance – but it’s a steep premium if you don’t need extra power, SATA, or any of the other features.