Radxa Rock 5B as a Raspberry Pi replacement?

In December 2022, the Raspberry Pi Foundation set about burning a large amount of the good will they had built up in the hacker community. They announced that they had hired an ex-cop who had used their products to spy on members of the public.

For those outside of the UK, or the left-leaning section of its citizens, this probably seemed fairly harmless. However, UK policing has been undergoing some pretty damning self-reflection after overstepping the mark, by quite a distance, on more than one occasion.

When challenged on the tone of their announcement, the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s social media and PR teams doubled down, attacked their critics, and started spreading straw-men to the press covering the outrage.

I, like many others, decided we could no longer support that organisation and that it was time to look elsewhere for our single-board computers and hackable hardware.

Enter Radxa Rock 5B

In early 2023, the Rock 5B from Radxa seemed to poised to take the Raspberry Pi’s crown for the best SBC for Linux on desktops. I promptly ordered one from China and eagerly awaited its delivery. Life “got in the way” for a bit and it wasn’t until this summer that I managed to sit down and get to grips with it. Immediately, I stumbled on to this devices biggest caveat – powering it on.

As can be found all over Radxa’s forums, people have a tough time powering this board. According to the Armbian project’s documentation, almost all Rock 5Bs in the wild have a firmware that isn’t able to negotiate USB Power Delivery and then hand over to Linux during boot up, resulting in an infinite brown out and reboot loop. There are updated firmware blobs and instructions available that once installed do appear to correctly handle USB-PD, but these cannot be installed until the board boots. Catch 22!

The solution to this is to boot the device using a “dumb” power supply that just provides the volts and amps without negotiation, flash the new boot firmware, then use a proper, standards-abiding power supply. I did not have any USB-C power supplies that acted in “dumb” mode, so instead I set up my NANKADF 30V/10A Programmable Power Supply to supply 5V at 3A and hooked it up to the Rock 5B via a USB-C break-out cable.

Using this combination lets the board start up and get all the way through to a log in prompt. During boot, the board peaked at a draw of almost 2A, but once it all settled down it dropped to less than 1A.

Now that the system’s up and running, the firmware can be upgraded by downloading a new image and following the instructions from the Radxa wiki. Once the new firmware’s flashed, you should be able to shutdown and restart the board with a proper USB power supply. Initially, I used a Samsung EP-TA200, a QuickCharge/Adaptive Fast Charging adapter which gives 15W, but only at 9V. At 5V, it will only supply 2A which was fine for most tasks, but once I’d logged in to a KDE desktop session, started a full apt update and begun editing some files in VSCode it must have pushed the supply beyond 2A and reset. Subsequently, I’ve moved over to an Anker A2039 which can supply the full 3A at 5V and since then I’ve never had a single hiccup.

Would I buy one again?

No.

Just don’t. It’s not worth the hassle.

If you find yourself in my shoes and have already bought the board but don’t have a fancy desktop power supply and various connectors, I’d skip all the compatibility lists on the Wiki and buy a barrel-plug 5V 3A power supply and a matching barrel-socket to USB-C plug like these two available from Amazon.

What would I buy instead?

When I picked up the Rock 5B, it was the only RK3588 based board that came with 16GiB of RAM. A similar board which I use as my router running OpenWrt is the NanoPi R6S from FriendlyElec which is also RK3588 based but only comes with 8GiB of RAM. It’s been flawless in operation and a breath of fresh air to flash, install and maintain compared to the Rock 5B. FriendlyElec have since come out with the NanoPC-T6 which has an option to buy it with 16GiB of RAM. That’s what I’d pick instead of the Radxa Rock 5B.


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