I’ve already briefly discussed my NextThing CHIP computers before. A few weeks ago I was purchasing a Raspberry Pi 3 and found that the store had Pi Zeros in stock as well, so I tossed one on because, hey, $5, and they are apparently hard to find.
These two little devices are pretty similar, but at the same time so different.
Both are small computers, not just microcontrollers like an Arduino, but little Linux machines. Both have GPIO pins, both can be used as a regular “desktop” if you wanted, both cost less than $10… Mostly…
The cost is where things get tricky, especially for the Raspberry Pi Zero. Upfront, the Pi Zero is only $5, which looks great on paper, and it’s still pretty cheap. That five dollars gets you a small flat circuit board with a few low profile ports on it. Chances are you’ll need a power supply, if you want to be able to configure it at all you’ll also need a way to plug a standard USB hub for keyboard and mouse into a micro USB port. The display out is a mini HDMI port, which you’ll likely also need an adaptor for. The Pi Zero also doesn’t have any sort of case on it. All of this is stuff that you may or may not need, you might have on hand, or, if you’re programming many Zeros, you can reuse the adapters and parts on all of the Pi Zeros you want, once configured.
The point is, after picking up even some cheap accessories, you’re probably looking at closer to $15 for a Pi Zero. Still cheap, just not quite AS cheap.
The CHIP on the other hand, is $9. It has built in WiFi and Bluetooth, it comes with a little plastic case for the underside of the board, and it comes with an RCA adapter. The RCA isn’t ideal and an HDMI or VGA attachment are both coming (for $10-$15) but the RCA is usable for setting up WiFi easily for SSH or VNC access. It even has built in storage. For $9, you’re pretty much up and running right out of the box. The Pi Zero is actually kind of useless all on it’s lonesome.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the CHIP is better.
Both The Raspberry Pi Zero and Next Thing’s CHIP run an arm based version of Debian (by default, but this could be changed), thus both have a lot of common in terms of what sorts of software can be used. The CHIP however seriously lacks the Raspberry Pi’s strong community. I’ve not been able to find any decent resources for how to even use the GPIO pins, for example. I had hoped to use one of my CHIPs for a project in the garage but I’ve hit some roadblocks.
I’ve actually had lots of roadblocks with the CHIP. Initially they were unstable, requiring a firmware update. I’ve had many strange problems getting software packages to work properly, even when following tutorials put out by others. The closest I’ve come to finishing a project is making a homemade Alexa clone. Even after buying identical parts (Mic and Button really), after trying many fixes and even wiping the thing out and starting from scratch, I still get errors with the Audio about “Period too large”.
Everything being built in is really convenient though. I honestly haven’t come up with any ideas yet for what to do with my Pi Zero. It ends up with some goofy dongles all over it to make it functional and I have 4 full sized Raspberry Pis at my disposal for other projects. I’ve seen an interesting Game Boy emulator build using the Zero I will probably try but so far, it’s pretty much just been running quietly on my workspace counter.
Personally, I think that ultimately it comes down to there is a point where these things become too cheap or small to be useful, at least for my needs. The sorts of projects a smaller board like this may be useful for feel like they would be better suited for an Arduino. Most of the projects I use my Pis for amount to “Hardware VMs”. Single task servers that can easily be repurposed or swapped out (using SD cards).