After months of Raspberry Pi shortages, we review an exciting new arrival on Australian shelves - a Raspberry Pi alternative called the ROCK 4C+. How well does it stack up against its competitor?
The Raspberry Pi has shaped the Maker industry for over a decade now, with the first Raspberry Pi Model Bs hitting the markets in early 2012. Since then, they've paved the way for a massive wave of incredible DIY projects built by us makers.
The appeal of a Raspberry Pi comes from its diminutive size and huge computing power. It's not a microcontroller like the Arduino series - it's a fully-fledged computer with a desktop interface, USB ports and networking. But you didn't need us to tell you that - if you're reading this magazine, you're aware of how incredible Raspberry Pi's are.
However, supply shortages have massively affected the availability and subsequent use in projects of the Raspberry Pi. The shortage has been so significant that sites such as RPILocator (rpilocator.com) are available for makers to monitor stock availability with real-time Twitter updates. While the situation IS improving, they aren't available everywhere and there is no guarantee how long they'll last on shelves.
So, with no consistent access to the most versatile and adaptable computing platform in the world, makers and manufacturers alike have been searching for alternatives.
The Rock 4C+
Once we heard that Jaycar Australia recently began stocking a competitor to the formidable (and, in 2023 - rare!) Raspberry Pi, we immediately ordered a bunch into our office to experiment with. Considering that Pi's are probably rarer than gold currently, it was extremely exciting for us to get a fresh shipment of hardware for our projects!
On first inspection, this board looks mostly the same as a standard Raspberry Pi 4B. It's got exactly the same physical form factor, and most of the same interfaces.
However, in person, the differences are immediately apparent. The Rockchip RK3399T SoC in the middle of the board is a hexa-core 1.5GHz processor, stacking up excellently with the Raspberry Pi 4B's 1.8GHz quad-core. The ROCK 4C+ comes with a tidy 4GB of RAM which is enough to run most programs, although we'd like to see an 8GB version in future.
Like the Pi, the ROCK 4C+ has two USB-A 2.0 ports, two USB-A 3.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, a 3mm headphone jack, two micro HDMI and a USB-C port for power.
We would've liked to see one or both of the HDMI ports stay as full-size ports, however, we recognise that the 4C+'s board is very compact. It also has a two-pin fan output for CPU cooling, which would be great for computationally intensive workloads.
Yep, there is a coloured GPIO header strip! We are probably more excited about this feature than we have any right to, but we're so glad to see some love and care given to the GPIO area. The colours are pretty simple. Green are standard digital pins, red is 5V, yellow is 3.3V, black is GND, and light blue is I2C.
It doesn't help when it comes to specific pin numbers, but the fear of accidentally shorting out one of the ROCK 4C+'s GPIO pins is lower.
The ROCK 4C+ also now includes an eMMC interface for additional storage. It comes in the form of two surface-mount connectors on the underside of the board. You won't, unfortunately, be able to interface this directly with SATA or USB - you'll need to pick up a dedicated eMMC chip. If you'd like to be able to image the eMMC chip, you'll also need a USB to eMMC adapter, which often allows the chip to be physically treated as a microSD card.
More importantly, what's the point? Why not just use the integrated microSD card slot like Raspberry Pi has done for years? Besides having more options for storage, eMMC performs better than standard microSD cards due to its additional data lines, especially when working with smaller files. Under 4K Write file tests, eMMC storage can easily exceed 10x the microSD speed.
Another advantage is that eMMC is much more resilient to multiple writes over the course of its lifetime, which makes it a better choice than SD cards if you're planning to read and write a lot of data. It's also more resilient to sudden power loss and physical strain.
Finally! Yes, the ROCK 4C+ includes an ON/OFF power button! It's quite small, but it's mounted in an easily accessible place near the USB-C port for quick reboots.
This has been a pet peeve for us for years. The original Pi has 2.5mm mounting holes, which is great if you have 2.5mm screws. Unfortunately, by far the most common screw diameter for makers is 3mm, which is too big to fit through the Pi's mounting holes.
The solution is to either purchase a more obscure screw size, and their associated nuts and washers, or, to commit blasphemy and upsize the Pi's holes with a 3mm drill bit. We've done this process at least a half dozen times since we launched DIYODE, and we dislike doing it every time we do. We've also crushed a total of two micro-USB ports while doing so. We're still confused as to why the Raspberry Pi Foundation insists on using this strange mounting size.
ROCK 4C+ has fixed this with 3mm mounting holes. They're in the same place, so anything you've already got mounted for an original Pi will still work with the ROCK 4C+.
Camera And Display Ports
The standard Raspberry Pi 4B has CSI (camera serial interface) and DSI (display serial interface) ports, making it simple to connect Raspberry Pi compatible components with minimal effort.
Unfortunately, the ROCK 4C+ does not have these ports - at least not in the physical form factor usually seen on Raspberry Pi boards. Instead, you'll need to grab a small adapter online that converts the 0.3mm pitch cable into a 1mm pitch cable compatible with regular Raspberry Pi accessories.
Software and Compatibility
The question we're all curious about - is it compatible with Raspberry Pi? In the marketing material for the Rock 4C+, compatibility with Raspberry Pi and Raspbian operating systems aren't explicitly mentioned. However, it does say it is compatible with Debian and Ubuntu Linux, so this is a good indicator.
We loaded up an SD card with Raspbian, and plugged it into the ROCK 4C+. Unfortunately, the activity indicators don't blink and it doesn't show up on our local network. Upon further research, the Raspbian operating system only supports processors used by the Raspberry Pi - the BCMxxxx series.
We then followed the guide by ROCK, and loaded up a copy of Debian using their suggested Balena Etcher software. As it's the closest thing to Raspbian with its desktop, we figured that it would be a fair comparison both in terms of usability and performance.
After waiting a few minutes for everything to copy across, we popped it back into the ROCK 4C+ and plugged in power. We also connected an Ethernet cable so we can access its data over SSH.
We were able to see that the ROCK was present on our WiFi through our Router's firmware, however, it did not respond to SSH requests. At this point, you can connect a monitor and keyboard to further set up the device and enable the SSH server. It should be much like what you're used to with Raspbian beyond that!
However, we mostly wanted a terminal to test everything out on - a desktop interface wasn't really important for us. So, we reflashed everything for a third time with the Ubuntu Server image.
Finally, we were able to log in with this command from our main computer:
We put in the password 'rock', and we were greeted with a classic bash command line:
While the process isn't incredibly intuitive from those coming from Raspberry Pi, luckily, there is a decent level of support both officially from Okdo and the community. We've left some links in the Resources section if you'd like to check them out.
At this point, it's a fairly standard Linux experience - most aspects of working with Raspberry Pi's will be the same for this board, albeit with some differences. You won't have access to convenient tools such as the 'raspi-config' command, so you'll need to install or configure system devices and services yourself. Python, Nano and other essential tools come pre-installed.
If you're on Ubuntu Server like we are, there will be some fairly useful commands missing such as 'curl' for grabbing web data. You'll need to run commands like this to grab them:
sudo apt-get install curl
The benefit of running a headless server with no desktop environment is that it's very fast. So, let's put it to the test!
This is where the real numbers come in. It's worth noting that performance benchmarks, like any computer platform, only matter if efficiency is your number one concern. If you're writing code and running simple Python scripts, as many of our projects involve, the performance of a particular device has a negligible impact on its usability.
For applications that inherently require computational resources, such as AI training or graphics rendering, this becomes important. Let's take a look.
We wanted to provide a fair comparison between the Raspberry Pi 4B and the ROCK 4C+, as they are clearly intended to be direct competitors. The ROCK 4C+ as sold by Jaycar includes 4GB of RAM, so we picked an equivalent Pi 4B.
We installed Geekbench using this command:
sudo wget https://cdn.geekbench.com/Geekbench-6.1.0-LinuxARMPreview.tar.gz
We can then extract the Geekbench archive and run the executable:
sudo tar xf Geekbench-6.1.0-LinuxARMPreview.tar.gz
After waiting a few minutes for everything to run, a web URL is generated to be viewed online. Unfortunately, our Raspberry Pi 4B decided not to run the Geekbench benchmark - it started crashing constantly. On the other hand, plenty of other makers have uploaded their Pi's results, so let's compare!
Due to the variety of scores listed, we picked what appeared to be a representative average benchmark. We've left our URL and the compared benchmark in the resources section if you'd like to view it.
In this benchmark, the Pi outperforms the ROCK 4C+ by around 10% in Single-Core performance, and the performance is closely matched in Multi-Core. However, in specific categories, the ROCK 4C+ easily outperforms the 4B in File Compression, Navigation, and HTML5 Browsing.
We'd recommend you review the benchmarks for yourself, as the operating system choice does cause performance variation. In any case, we think this is an acceptable performance from the ROCK 4C+, especially considering it's up against a product line-up that has been storming the maker industry for over a decade.
Return of the Pi
The Rock 4C+ might not have the limelight for long. RPILocator reports that since July 25th, Raspberry Pi Australia now has the 4GB and 8GB models of the Pi 4B back in stock. What's more, they are offering these Pi's at reasonable prices - $110 and $139.90 respectively. The ROCK 4C+ sits above both of those at $149, and with only 4GB of RAM. On the other hand, with the additional features offered by the ROCK 4C+, makers should consider what will work best for their intended projects. In any case, Raspberry Pi stock availability situation is still fluctuating, so be aware that even by the time you read this, the level of stock may change.
Overall, we're excited to see new and innovative competitor products entering the Maker market in a meaningful way. We're hoping that a wider variety of Raspberry Pi compatible boards will force existing manufacturers to improve features to remain viable, and encourage new ones to enter the game too. This month, we're giving away four of these boards, so don't miss out on entering!
The Rock 4 Model C Plus 4GB is available from Jaycar: www.jaycar.com.au/p/XC9300