SBCs normally run the GNU/Linux system, but that doesn't mean that all is well for software freedom on these boards. Each existing SBC model has major flaws -- hardware that doesn't work without running a nonfree program.
Single-board computers with no flaws
The boards in this category have all their features working with free software.
Single-board computers with minor flaws
The boards in this category are usable with free software but a few non-critical features don't work without non-free software. For most uses, it is not hard to do without them.
Single-board computers with serious flaws
These boards are basically usable in the free world, but important hardware features are nonfunctional. These flaws have workarounds, but the workarounds are far from painless.
- The BeagleBoard (various versions) as well as the PandaBoard use the TI OMAP family of SoCs. These come with free startup software as well as free drivers for the peripherals.
However, the graphics accelerator (GPU) and the video decoding hardware for formats such as MPEG-2 are nonfunctional, because they require nonfree blobs to be installed into them. The workaround for these flaws is to do these jobs on the CPU with free software.
The Pandaboard has another serious flaw: a WiFi and Bluetooth chip that can't work without nonfree software. The workaround is to get an external USB device for these functions, if you want them. See the documentation of your board for information about using these USB devices with it.
- The AllWinner Axx and R8 platforms come in many boards such as the A13-OLinuXino, Cubieboard, Gooseberry, Hackberry and CHIP.
While there is free 2D acceleration for Xorg, the GPU and the some features of the video encoding/decoding (VPU) hardware are unusable in the free world, so these jobs must be done on the CPU. In particular, the VPU cannot encode videos and can only decode videos in a few MPEG formats.
The work to achieve free software support for the Mali GPU was started with the Lima project. Please contribute to help its development.
The Cubieboard, Gooseberry, CHIP and some versions of the A13-OLinuXino contain a WiFi chip that doesn't work without nonfree software. See the documentation of your board for information about using another USB device (one that respects your freedom) with it.
Other boards such as the Cubieboard, Cubieboard2, A10-OlinuXino-LIME, A20-OlinuXino-LIME and A20-OlinuXino-LIME2 do not require any additional proprietary software than what is common to all Allwinner platforms to be fully functional.
- The MIPS Creator CI20 board comes with free startup software and free
software drivers for most of its peripherals. However, graphics
acceleration and 3D depend on proprietary software, so they are
nonfunctional with free software. In addition, the Wi-Fi and bluetooth
functionalities require a proprietary piece of software to be loaded on
the module to function.
We thank Alexandru Voica from Imagination Technologies for sending us a board to evaluate
Single-board computers with fatal flaws
- The Raspberry Pi requires nonfree software to start up. It can't reach the point of executing free software unless this nonfree program is part of the installed system software.
The startup program is, in fact, the same program that runs the GPU and the video decoding hardware. Thus, the GPU and the video decoding hardware are unusable in the free world, but these jobs can be done with free software on the CPU.
That program appears to implement intentional restrictions, such as blocking the video decoding hardware for MPEG-2 and VC-1 in the absence of a key that is specific to the machine in hand. This nonfree startup program affects both models of the Raspberry Pi.
- The Odroid-X, Odroid-X2, Odroid-U, Odroid-U2 and Arndale boards use the Samsung Exynos SoC. It requires nonfree startup software. Making things even more hopeless, it is very difficult to replace that program with free software, since the board requires the startup software to have a checksum computed by a secret algorithm. In addition, the GPU and hardware video decoding require nonfree software, but these jobs can be done with free software on the CPU.
In addition, the Arndale is normally sold with a WiFi module board that requires nonfree software.
- The Intel Edison board requires proprietary software to boot up and work properly. In addition, the Wi-Fi and bluetooth module that is part of the board requires proprietary software to be loaded on the module for it to function. The board also features a micro-controller unit, that runs a piece of non-free software.
Thanks to Paul Kocialkowski for collecting the information for this page.