Getting Started with NanoPi NEO Development Board – Ubuntu Core Firmware

NanoPi NEO is an exciting ARM Linux board due to the power it packs into its small size, and its low price starting at $7.99. It’s made by FriendlyARM, and since I’ve read some people had never heard about the company before, I’d like to point out it has been providing development boards well before the Raspberry Pi board was launched, with products such mini2440 based on a Samsung ARM9 processor introduced around year 2010. Anyway, I asked the company if they were willing to send 2 samples for review, as I plan to remove the USB & Ethernet port on one of them. Instead I got a 4 boards and accessories, so I’m going to start reviewing the board by writing a quick start guide, showing how to setup it, and check out the Ubuntu core provided by the company. If you are a fan of armbian made Debian distribution, NanoPi NEO will soon be supported too.

NanoPi NEO Pictures

So company send the parcel by DHL, and for some reasons declared an $11 value for 6 boards in the invoice, despite the board selling for respectively $7.99 and $9.99, and the two PSU-ONECOM debug boards going for $4 each… This resulted in higher custom duties than expected…

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I opened all packages, with the board stored in anti-static bags as they should.

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The complete package content include two NanoPi NEO 512MB RAM, two NanoPi NEO with 256MB RAM, two PSU-ONECOM debug board (which I don’t recommend, more details below), two 5V/2A power adapter and corresponding USB cables, as well as two blank 8GB micro SD cards. Each NEO board package also features a piece of paper with the specifications, and a getting started guide partially written for NanoPi-T3 (no you can’t use HDMI with NanoPi NEO), but still two useful links pointing the NEO Wiki, and Friendlyarm github account.

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The top of the board features Ethernet, USB host, and micro USB (power) ports, as well as the micro SD slot, and I/O headers, while we’ll find the only two main ICs on the back with Allwinner H3 quad core Cortex A7 processor, and a Samsung RAM chip.

In case you wonder how to differentiate between the 512MB and 256MB version in case you buy both model, there’s a 512M RAM sticker on the former, and no sticker on the latter.

NanoPi_NEO_512MB_vs_256MB

If for some reasons, the sticker is detached, or remove, just check the back of the board for the Samsung memory part number: 2G (2 Gbit) = 256 MB, and 4G (4Gbit) = 512MB. Easy enough.

Samsung_Memory_256MB_vs_512MBNanoPi NEO can be considered a competitor of several other small ARM or MIPS Linux boards including Raspberry Pi Zero, Orange Pi One, Next Thing CHIP, and Mediatek LinkIt 7688, so I’ve taken a “family pictures” to show the respective size of the boards, and NanoPi NEO is clearly one of the smallest, and more powerful than most other board save for Orange Pi One.

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Click to Enlarge

However, it’s also much thicker than most because of its RJ45 jack, and vertical USB port.

NanoPi_NEO_Ethernet_USBI had planned to shoot a video showing how to remove the Ethernet and USB port (and possibly serial header), but I’ll probably skip it, because the company has now decided to also sell NanoPi NEO 512MB without Ethernet nor USB for $9.98 + shipping.

Getting Started with Ubuntu Core image for NanoPi NEO

So now, that we’ve checked out the hardware, it’s time to play with the board. Eventually, armbian will release an image, and it may become the preferred option, because of community support, but in the meantime, I’ll use the “Ubuntu Core + Qt Embedded” image released by the company. The instructions below are to be follow in a terminal windows in Debian, Ubuntu, or Mint operating system, but if you use Windows 10 you can flash the image with Win32DiskImager just like with a Raspberry Pi, or install Windows Subsystem for Linux, and follow the exact same procedure as in Linux.

First, you’ll need to download the image (currently nanopi-neo-core-qte-sd4g-20160704.img.zip) through mediafire, and uncompress it:


Now insert a micro SD card into your computer, and check the device name (/dev/sdX, or /dev/mmcblkpX) with lsblk command:


That step is very important. In my case, my 8GB SD card (the 3.7GB image should also work on 4GB micro SD cards) is /dev/sdb, so that’s what I’ll use. If I used /dev/sda instead, the instructions would completely wipe out my hard drive, and I’d lose all my data and OS. Anyway, let’s go ahead, and umount the SD card, and flash the image, checking the progress with pv:


The third step should take a few minutes to complete. Now we can take the micro SD card out, and insert it into the board, connect an Ethernet cable and the power, and after a few seconds (about 5 to 10 seconds). you should be able to ssh to the board with its IP address, which you can get from your router DHCP list.:


All good that was easy, and the board works out of the box. What’s not so nice is that the image is based on Ubuntu 15.10, an unsupported version of Ubuntu at this time.

Another way to connect to the board, especially if you don’t plan to use Ethernet is through the serial console. I’ve first done so using the company’s PSU-ONECOM debug board, plus a NULL modem cable, and an RS232 to USB adapter, since my computer does not have a DB9 connector.

NanoPi_NEO_RS232_Board

That’s fun, and it works, but that’s what I’d consider the old way of doing things simply because most recent computers or laptop don’t have a COM port. So instead, I’d recommend to use a standard USB to TTL, which normally cost $1 shipped, to connect to your computer, as it’s just more convenient to most people.NanoPi_NEO_USB_to_TTL_BoardSimply connect GND, Rx, and Tx to GND, Tx and Rx pins on the serial header of the board as shown below.NanoPi_NEO_Serial_Header

That’s the board output in minicom connected to /dev/ttyUSB0 with 115200 8N1 settings. In Windows, you may want to use Putty.

Let’s type some other command to find out more:


So the image is using a Linux 3.4.39 legacy kernel (mainline support should be a few weeks or months away), the rootfs size is 3.6GB with 3.0GB free (You’ll want to resize it with parted + resize2fs), and the quad core Cortex A7 processor has a maximum frequency of 1.2 GHz, instead of 1.29 GHz for boards with a different voltage regulation, but that’s OK, as the board has been mostly designed for IoT applications, and not necessarily for maximum performance. The GPIO module is compiled, but an error is generated after I load it, and now GPIOs are exported, which differs from my experience with the images I used with Orange Pi Allwinner H3 boards, where GPIOs are listed and ready to use.

Power consumption on this type of board is a topic that will require a separate post, but since I’ve been asked I’ve taken some quick measurements using a “kill-a-watt” power meter, and power consumption at idle is around 2.0 watts. Since the platform should also support standby/sleep mode, I tried it with pm-suspend:


Power consumption only dropped to 1.4 watts, and I was not able to resume by connecting a USB keyboard. So either the method I used is not correct, and suspend is not fully supported in the kernel. I’ll have to study a bit more, but obviously tips or links that could help me are welcome in comments.

Finally, I also checked whether it would be feasible to install an heatsink for people who may want to push the board to its limits.

NanoPi_NEO_HeatsinkThe Ethernet jack pins prevents to simply put some thermal paste on the processor and RAM, so you’d have to add some thermal pads on both ICs before fitting a heatsink, unless you use a smaller heatsink that does not cover the area under the RJ45 connector. There’s also no obvious way to keep the heatsink in place.

If you are interested in the board, it sells for $7.99 with 256MB RAM, and $9.98/$9.99 with 512MB RAM without/with Ethernet and USB host ports, plus shipping which normally amounts to $4 to $5 by airmail.

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