Asus Tinker Board 2S – Review 2021

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When an old laptop or smartphone is overkill for your DIY electronics project, a single-board computer is the perfect affordable alternative. It’s been almost a decade since the first Raspberry Pi started a phenomenon and four years since Asus joined the party with its original Tinker Board. Now, a next-generation Tinker Board 2S has appeared to compete with today’s more powerful options. It’s pricey at $125, but it packs a lot of potential for sophisticated inventions and dedicated makers.


A Small But Mighty Foundation

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with single-board computers, and the Tinker Board 2S doesn’t reinvent the wheel. About the size of a deck of cards—in fact, extremely similar in size and shape to the Raspberry Pi—the 2S (and the Tinker Board 2, which has just a microSD card slot for storage while the 2S has both a slot and 16GB of eMMC flash) fit a lot of functionality onto a small PCB.

The brain of the Tinker Board 2S is a 64-bit Rockchip RK3399 system-on-a-chip, consisting of a dual-core ARM Cortex-A72 running at 2.0GHz and a quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 running at 1.5GHz. This big.LITTLE design, as ARM calls it, allows the two CPUs to dynamically allocate tasks to the appropriate core for reduced energy usage. You also get a Mali-T860 MP4 GPU running at 800MHz and 2GB or 4GB of dual-channel LPDDR4 memory, depending on the model you choose. Our $125 test model comes with 2GB.

Asus Tinker Board 2S USB input

The I/O is rather versatile, offering four USB 3.2 Gen 1 ports—three Type-A, one Type-C—with the USB-C connector also supporting OTG functionality and DisplayPort for connecting an external monitor. The Tinker Board 2S also has a full-size HDMI port, permitting dual displays. You’ll also find the usual Gigabit Ethernet and the abovementioned microSD card slot, alongside headers for an RTC battery, fan connector, MIPI DSI and CSI, and the ever-useful 40-pin GPIO header, which is color-coded for convenience. The board also comes with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0 on a swappable M.2 card with external antenna.

The power connector has changed this time around, using a 5.5mm barrel connector instead of microUSB or USB-C. No power supply is included in the box, so you’ll have to buy one separately—Asus sells a 45-watt power adapter, but I used an FSP unit without any problem.

Finally, there’s the 16GB of onboard eMMC storage. To install an operating system on it, you can plug the Tinker Board into your desktop or laptop PC using a USB-C cable. Once powered on with the power supply, the 2S will appear on your PC as a storage device you can use with Etcher or Win32 Disk Imager. You can get Debian and Android images from Asus for installation, or download a specific image for the project at hand (provided the community has built one for you).


A Few Tinker Tests

All of this adds up to a powerful single-board computer that can handle plenty of different projects. It’s difficult to benchmark a device like the Tinker Board 2S given its open-ended design; how well it works is dependent on the project you’re looking to build. I couldn’t get Geekbench to properly report results—the benchmark is still in an early preview state for ARM chips—but Asus’ claimed multi-core score of 806 is slightly ahead of the 637 I achieved on my Raspberry Pi 4.

On the other hand, I was able to run the browser-based JetStream 2.0 JavaScript benchmark without issue, and the 2S scored 24.105 in open air with the bundled heatsink, which was slightly lower than the Raspberry Pi 4’s score of 26.461 with no heatsink.

On paper, it looks like the two boards trade blows in performance, but numbers like that don’t tell the whole story. The Tinker Board, for example, scored better in certain tests within JetStream such as those having to do with cryptography. Since the Tinker Board 2S supports ARMv8 crypto extensions, it may be more suitable for, say, an at-home VPN project. Again, the best hardware for the job depends on your application, and you may have to dig into the specs relevant to the project at hand.


Some Assembly Required

Raw power is one thing, but when it comes to multi-talented project boards like this, usability is also crucial. While the more famous Raspberry Pi is well documented, both online and in the user manuals bundled with the official starter kit, the Tinker Board 2S leaves users fending for themselves a bit more.

The Quick Start Guide that comes with the board, for example, is fairly thin on information and actually leaves out some useful details found in the full user manual available on Asus’ website. Even that document isn’t exactly beginner-friendly, and Asus’ default operating system (which runs Debian but uses the more stripped-down LXDE desktop environment) can be a bit clunky to use at first.

If you have a bit of Linux know-how, you probably won’t have any problems, but beginners may feel a bit frustrated compared to the more hand-holding nature of something like the Pi. This makes some sense given the Tinker Board’s more enterprise-focused advertising, and Asus may be aiming further away from the hobbyist market than it did its first time around.

Asus Tinker Board 2S overhead

In addition, unlike the first Tinker Board, the 2S does not seem to fit many (if any) existing Raspberry Pi cases. While Asus obviously has no obligation to support another company’s accessories, the original Tinker Board’s case compatibility was a big boon to users since there are so many third-party accessories available for the more popular Pi. This is especially important considering you may need active cooling if you plan on pushing the CPU—Asus’ Quick Start Guide even says, “Beware of high temperatures when using only the bundled heatsink,” and indeed mine easily reached 78 degrees C when benchmarking. Second-gen buyers will have a much smaller selection of cases and accessories to choose from, and in some cases 3D printing something for yourself may be your best option depending on the project.

The same goes for ready-made software images. While you can build your own system from the ground up using Debian or Android, many popular projects—like the LibreELEC Kodi player or RetroPie video game system—have pre-built images you can flash to a microSD card to get up and running in no time. As of this writing, the second-gen Tinker Boards are new enough that there aren’t many images floating around for them, though this is a common issue among brand-new boards. Those downloadable images may come further down the line as the Tinker Board 2S gets into the hands of more users and developers (especially given that the Rockchip RK3399 has been around for a while), but time will tell.

Thankfully, while the Tinker Board may not be as well known as the Raspberry Pi, it’s still relatively popular in the maker space, and I’d expect the 2S to have an active enough community that you can find tech support if you hit a roadblock. You probably won’t get all the step-by-step help you might receive with a more popular board, but you won’t be yelling into a void and hearing crickets either.


VVV: Versatility Versus Value

We remember when the first Raspberry Pi was released, and it’s amazing to see how far these boards have come since then—the Tinker Board 2S is a clear upgrade over its predecessor and in terms of raw power competes nicely with the Raspberry Pi 4. Coupled with the versatility of all its headers and options—many tinkerers may prefer the 5.5mm barrel connector and full-size HDMI port to the Pi’s quirky USB-C and micro HDMI—the Tinker Board 2S offers a lot to seasoned makers.

Asus Tinker Board 2S diagonal

But unlike the first Tinker Board, which gave the Raspberry Pi 3 more of a run for its money, the advantages of the Tinker Board 2S over the Pi 4 are a bit more nebulous considering its price tag of $125 versus $35 to $75. That makes it a much tougher value proposition, especially when you consider the sheer availability of Raspberry Pi projects and the size of that community.

The Tinker Board 2S is a great piece of hardware, but from a practical perspective, it doesn’t offer a big enough jump over the competition to be worth it for most people, given the sheer size of the Pi community. If you’re looking for a project board, I’d first recommend the Raspberry Pi 4. If for some reason it doesn’t fit your needs, digging into the specs of the Tinker Board 2S might reveal a feature that makes it a better option for your specific use case, assuming you’re willing to pay for the privilege.

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