The UP Core – x86 Pi Compute Module Competitor?

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Developed by Aaeon, a subsidiary of ASUStek (or ASUS for short), there are a variety of UP branded boards on offer. This post focuses on the first generation of UP boards, which are cheaper (and lower performance) than their successors.

The UP board has the now ubiquitous Raspberry Pi form factor, with similar I/O on offer. The board we have here is the UP Core, a curious board which is most comparable to the Pi compute module, albeit with more I/O than the Pi CM.

In this post, we put the board through its paces, seeing what it has to offer and how it stacks up to similar boards.

Be sure to also check out our video overview of the board.

A First Look

Unboxing the UP Core, you’ll quickly notice the large built-in heatsink and real time clock battery – the latter due to the fact it is dangling off the board. It’s advisable to keep the battery away from the board during operation, as the heatsink will get rather hot.

The UP Core is a feature-filled board given the compact footprint. Coming in at just 66×56.5mm, it is not much larger than a Raspberry Pi compute module. It’s smaller than the full-sized Pi, and it’s also smaller than the Dell Wyse 3040 we have looked at previously.

Top of the board
Top side of the UP Core

The top side of the board is predominantly taken up by a heatsink. Much of the remaining space is taken up by expansion ports or headers.

You’ll also notice the battery dangling from the board – this powers the real-time clock.

As we’ll see later, the CPU and chipset used in the UP Core is the same as the 3040, making for an interesting comparison.

The RAM and storage are located on the bottom of the board.

Bottom of the board
Bottom side of the UP Core

The expansion connector on the bottom of the board does prevent it from sitting flat – something to think about if you’re planning to create a case or VESA mount. Standoffs will be required to lift the board for both options.

What’s interesting about this board is the inclusion of ‘normal’ ports on the board – in this case, for power, USB and HDMI. This makes the board usable without the need for a carrier board – a definite benefit over the Pi compute module.

Hardware Specifications

The UP Core features a quad-core Intel Atom CPU, with integrated Intel HD graphics. This is the same CPU used in the Dell Wyse 3040, and was often seen in tablets and other passively-cooled devices.

CPUIntel Atom x5-8350 Quad Core CPU @ 1.92GHz
GPUIntel HD 400 @ 500MHz
RAM2GB/4GB DDR3-L RAM
Storage16GB/32GB/64GB eMMC
EthernetN/A
WirelessAMPAK AP6214A WiFi 802.11 b/g/n @ 2.4 GHz (Broadcom BCM43430)
Bluetooth 4.0 (BLE) (Broadcom BCM43430)
Display1x Full Size HDMI/1x eDP (Expansion Port)
AudioI2S Audio (Expansion Port)
USB1x USB 3.0
2x USB 2.0 (Expansion Port)
Other100 Pin Expansion Header
CSI Camera Port
DSI Display Port
2x UART
Real-Time Clock
12v 2-Pin Fan Header
Power5V/4A 5.5/2.1mm Jack with Power Button
Specifications of the UP Core board

There are multiple variants of the UP Core, with different RAM/eMMC configurations. The one we have here is a 4GB RAM/64GB eMMC version.

Wifi and Bluetooth are built-in, though an external antenna is required to make use of this. While the chip is labelled AMPAK AP6214A, the hardware is identified as a Broadcom BCM43430, which is what you’ll need to look for in terms of drivers. Incidentally, this is the same Broadcom chip used in the Raspberry Pi 3B.

While the board is passively cooled, a 12V fan header is included should you wish to implement an active cooling solution. This uses a two-pin design, so control of the fan is somewhat limited.

Where this board differs from the compute module is the inclusion of a power jack, HDMI and USB ports. The UP Core requires no additional hardware to run, unlike the compute module which requires a carrier board.

Board layout
UP core board layout. Source: https://up-board.org/media-library/?jtg-filter=up-core

The image above, taken from the UP Board website, shows the layout of the board. It’s pretty packed on both sides, with the three main ports all aligned along one edge.

While no case is provided, dimensions are made available so it should be relatively simple to make one for yourself.

Software Support

The UP Core is advertised as having Windows 10, Android and Ubuntu support. Drivers for Windows 10 and Ubuntu 16.04 are available on the UP Community website, along with an image of Android 6.

None of these are particularly modern, but it’s possible to install any version of Linux on the UP Core and use the core features. We haven’t tested any addons, but given the Intel Cherry Trail platform, it is assumed all functionality would be supported.

Windows About
Windows 10 on the UP Core

We’ve tested Windows 10 and a few Linux distros, and haven’t had problems with any. Windows does require more work to get configured, but once you have the drivers installed it works perfectly.

Ubuntu About
Ubuntu on the UP Core

One issue we did encounter when installing an OS is the fact that the UP Core only features a single USB port. Using a USB boot drive, this leaves no port for a keyboard/mouse. A basic USB hub is enough to overcome this.

UEFI
UP Core UEFI

This board, like the Dell Wyse 3040, comes with an integrated BIOS. It’s possible to tweak various settings here, including boot parameters, network support and a variety of chipset configuration options.

The UP Core only supports UEFI booting – there is no legacy boot support. This shouldn’t be a problem though, with modern OS’s having full UEFI support.

Being x86-based, the UP Core is compatible with software you would typically run on a PC. Software support is much broader than you would find with an ARM-based alternative.

Addons

The Pi is well known for its expansion capabilities. The compute module extends this further, requiring a carrier board in order to function. Carrier boards often integrate functionality, so you’re sure to be able to find a carrier board which fits your needs.

The UP Core also includes expansion capabilities, mainly through the 100-pin connector on the underside of the board. This connector breaks out many of the additional features of the chipset, such as PCIe and extra display and USB connections.

UP Core Pinout
Pinout of the 100-pin connector. Source: https://up-shop.org/default/mpattachment/file/download/id/324

As well as the 100-pin connector, the UP Core also has expansion ports for a camera, display, and extra USB ports.

This is great, but it’s only worthwhile if there are boards available to use them. And this is where we meet the UP Core’s Achilles heel. The lack of community (and therefore boards) available for the UP Core seriously limit its potential.

It’s a familiar story to anyone who’s owned a single board computer – lack of community holding a board back. Two official addon boards were created, but at the time of writing, these have already been discontinued.

There’s nothing to stop you from making your own, though. Full documentation is available to make it easier for you to do just that, and it’s something we plan to look at in the future.

For addons, then, it’s a mixed bag. Potential is absolutely there, but don’t expect an off-the-shelf addon to be available to meet your needs.

Benchmarks

The UP Core was benchmarked using Phoronix Test Suite. We compared it to the tests we have previously run, comparing the Dell Wyse 3040 to the Raspberry Pi 4.

Given that the UP Core and Wyse 3040 use the same CPU/GPU, results for many of the tests were very similar to the 3040. To save repeating these results, we recommend checking out our previous article comparing the 3040 and Raspberry Pi 4.

Where the UP Core really shines is the storage I/O, which is a particular weakness of the Raspberry Pi.

Storage benchmarks
Harmonic mean results of storage benchmarks, showing results for both MB/s and IOPS

This benchmarking was done using Phoronix Test Suite, with the graph showing the harmonic mean of the results. 32KB and 1MB block sizes were used for testing. The UP Core is well ahead of the other boards tested, suggesting a good fit for storage I/O bound workloads.

That said, it’s worth remembering the Pi compute module also has integrated storage options, which will likely provide a storage I/O boost. We haven’t tested this, so we can’t do a direct comparison in this case.

We did find a few results where the UP Core saw a surprising performance deficit to the 3040. It is likely that the higher ambient temperature contributed to this, which along with the smaller board and heatsink, would cause the UP Core to thermally throttle sooner than the 3040.

As noted in our other benchmark test, there’s not a huge amount between the platform used in the UP Core/3040 and the Pi 4. The Pi is best for GPU-related tasks, while the UP Core has much faster storage speeds. Consider your use-case to decide what is most important for you.

Price and Availability

Availability through to 2024 has been guaranteed, which doesn’t give too much time before these are likely to be discontinued. This board, along with the UP Board variant, crop up on eBay from time to time and are likely to do so long after being officially discontinued.

We got our board for £40, which is a good price point given the performance level and storage capacity. It probably isn’t worth spending much more than that on one given the alternatives that are available, unless there’s a specific feature (the expansion header, perhaps) that interests you.

Conclusion

Overall, the UP Core is a very interesting compute module-style board with a huge amount of expansion capability.

OS and software support is excellent, largely due to the standard Intel-based PC architecture.

The RRP is a little steep given the alternatives that are available, but if you can find one for a decent price it’s definitely worth taking a look at.

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