Long term the free software and free hardware world moves over to RISC-V as I understand. Short term the Librem 5 handheld is based NXP i.MX (ARM) for now. I’m curious what “desktop” single board computer on what platform can you recommend short to medium term until RISC-V eventually matures.
Is the Raspberry Pi free enough to you? If not, what’s the alternative? Obviously a free (as in free beer) alternative would be interesting as well.
What do I want to use a general purpose personal computer for? Good question. To my best understanding you shouldn’t have a predefined purpose what to use a general purpose computer for. Once I’ve listened to this popular Apple podcast and the hosts argued that a MacBook Air should be perfectly capable of doing everything (including movie editing) a much more powerful MacBook Pro is supposed to do, albeit slower. This is so true.
Obviously you won’t edit movies on a Raspebbry Pi or equivalent NXP i.MX single board computer but what can you realistically use such a computer for? A home server, a home router, a smart TV box, learning to code, or running a very lightweight desktop among other things. The Librem 5 phone (with its NXP i.MX heart) in this sense is also a very lightweight desktop, but with a touch interface.
Let’s assume that our Raspberry Pi computer and our NXP i.MX computer is of roughly the same generation, and has similar computing power (but in reality, are they comparable?). Is the NXP i.MX “more free” in any sense? Even though the Raspberry Pi sure has a larger community, and a wider choice of operating systems and application programs to choose from. If my assumption is true that the NXP i.MX turns out to be “more free” then why the less free Raspberry Pi manages to attract a larger enthusiast base? It’s an interesting question. After all, these kind of computers are for tinkerers, free software enthusiasts, and the like.
The range in capability between the least potent Pi and the most potent Pi is now quite large, so it may not be the case that your question has one answer that covers all models of Pi.
Depends what type of server. I know some people use a Pi as a file / content server. I prefer not to do that.
Makes a good DNS server.
If looking for a simple, general answer, my answer would be: use a Pi to do one thing well, and something that is realistic for its capability.
Only the latest Pi model (4B) is in my opinion a general purpose computer (4 x Cortex-A72 @ 1.5 GHz, 4GB RAM, 2 x USB 2.0 ports, 2 x USB 3.0 ports, 2 x HDMI 2.0 video outputs + DSI, GbE, 802.11ac WiFi dual band, BT 5.0, improved GPU, CSI).
I think you may need to be clearer about what you’re asking, but here’s my ramblings based on yours.
The Pi is popular because it is a cheap computer with lots of hackability.
Most people are not, yet, fully aware, or not prepared to care, about what the difference in this freedom means. As such, cheaper will be seen as “better”.
By contrast, the BeagleBoard has been around for several years longer, but isn’t quite as popular. Why? Easy, the boards are about double the price or more. I would say they are also better in most respects, but most people won’t get that far. I believe hardware wise, they are significantly more open than the Pi, or at least they started out as such. I’m less familiar with their newer boards.
I have an assortment of ARM based computers and typically if it will easily run Linux, I’m pretty happy with that. What I use it for, depends upon it’s capabilities. I got a Pi-Top-3 to use as an introduction to computing tool for my kids. I don’t personally have need for a laptop, but this works in the rare cases where one would be handy for me.
What to recommend to someone, like with any computer system, is 100% dependant upon that individual’s needs and opinions. There are a lot of options out there and you could probably spend weeks researching and cataloguing them without actually having a complete list.
If you are specifically looking for the most open processor, then you already know where to research further. This is an interesting read along those lines.
I appreciate your rambling, in fact this it’s exactly the kind of answer was looking for. OK, maybe I suck at asking questions, I’d appreciate your input, anyone’s input on what exactly to ask the next time to generate an answer like your. On the other hand we can think of a forum discussion like this which evolves and may change direction as it unfolds. This isn’t Reddit or Stack Exchange to have a single best answer to upvote.
You say the main selling point of the Raspberry Pi is being cheap, albeit adding the pi-top  laptop option makes it quite expensive. Roughly as expensive in fact as the x86-based laptop I’m otherwise looking for. This doesn’t mean that the ability of the single board computer to turn it into a laptop is a must for me. It’s just something nice to have.
That’s for the most open processor. But speaking of a transitional, pragmatic solution that is available and affordable today: I don’t even know if we can consider ARM or x86 based computers to be more free.
Where would you place NXP i.MX boards with respect to freedom, cost effectiveness, and the community around them compared to the rest of the ARM pack?
You left out hackability, without that, it would not have the community that it does. It’s the price tag that makes it appealing to students, hobbyists and everyone looking to explore such things. That’s why it has a larger community than the BeagleBoard.
I didn’t get the Pi-Top laptop to turn a Pi into daily driver laptop. That would be silly, I got it as a teaching tool. A regular latptop does not allow you to slide down the keyboard and attach a breadboard you can directly interact with the mainboard’s IO interface. For my oldest child, I bought a chromebook, because they are cheap and installed Debian on it. Yes I had to flash the bios, but it was pretty easy. I even enjoy using it when I get the chance.
They are in the ARM pack, so that’s where I’d put them. I’m no expert in processors and their differences and I don’t particularly care to obsess over them. Linux is my benchmark in this department. If there is Linux support readily available, then it’s probably pretty open, cost effective and secure. But like Intel showed us, you can’t entirely count on that either.
If I’m buying an ARM based board, it’s because I have a project in mind for it and I will get whatever fits the project’s constraints the best.
Lots of add-ons and stuff - maybe that’s what you meant by hackability. If you want to do Y, probably someone has already done Y. “There’s a HAT for that.”
Lots of users - so if you are having problems, probably someone has already encountered the problem.
That can then be self-sustaining i.e. unless you are a serious hardware hacker, you may not want niche hardware to hack.
If you are a casual hardware hacker or indeed not a hacker at all and you just want a solution (so the hacking is not itself the goal) then you want something that just gets you there.
As far as openness goes, one factor that may play into it is that the vast majority (Statistics By Assertion ™) of ARM SBCs from any manufacturer are used to run Linux. So the starting point is already much more open than it is with, say, mobile phones or to a lesser extent laptops / desktops.
So the perception can be that it is already 95% open, so what is the perceived incremental benefit of getting that last 5% of openness (even though in reality if the lower 5% is compromised then it doesn’t matter how open the upper 95% is)?
I was specifically answering that when I said this :
I have only done a little low level programming with microcontrollers and have not read enough datasheets on ARM architectures to have a real opinion. So, with that in mind, if I’m looking at ready made boards, it’s for specific functionality one provides over another as it pertains to the project. To make the sort of comparison you appear to be asking, you’d need to know more than just the differences in the ARM processor, you could be looking at an SOC and what all the components that make up that are, as well as the rest of the board’s components. That is the level of granularity you need to get to and what Purism has done so we don’t have to. So if Purism picked the NXP i.MX to base their system on, it’s probably a good baseline for whatever you’re looking for. Beyond that any board you look at should be able to run Linux without requiring you to download and install any sort of proprietary drivers or kernel modules.
Yeah, that and for those who like to do it themselves, making your own custom hat is just as easily within reach, but there are plain PCB hats for that too. Very handy.