In the past, I’ve exclusively covered Arduino-based projects, but that platform is far from the only option for makers and anyone into D-I-Y electronics. Sometimes, you need more than just an electronics controller board, you need a full computer system. Among other options, the most significant single-board computers today are the Raspberry Pi and the Beaglebone Black. There’s been a lot of digital ink spilt about the Raspberry Pi since it launched early last year, but the Beaglebone Black hasn’t enjoyed nearly the same level of coverage (even though it's used in projects like OpenROV). I think that’s a shame, because the board actually has a lot to offer the amateur builder, and for many is a compelling alternative to the Pi. In this guide, I’ll take an in-depth look at the Beaglebone Black, discussing what it is, what you can do with it, and how to get started.
What is the Beaglebone Black
First, a bit of vocab: the Beaglebone Black is a single-board computer, like the Raspberry Pi. A single-board computer is pretty much what it sounds like—all the hardware you would expect to find in a desktop or laptop computer, shrunken down and soldered to a single circuit board. A processor, memory, and graphics acceleration are all present as chips on the board.
To contrast, Arduino boards also have a processor and memory on board, but are orders of magnitude less powerful, and lack the specialized I/O hardware you need to connect the board to a monitor. In more concrete terms, you can hook a Beagleboard Black up to a display, speakers, a keyboard and mouse and an Ethernet network, and boot into a Linux-based operating system. From there, you can do anything you could do with a (low-powered) Linux computer. You can’t do that with Arduino.
The original Beagleboard, launched in 2008 and was a little bit bigger and a lot more expensive. By 2012, the Beaglebone was released, which brought the size in line with the credit-card-shaped Raspberry Pi, but still cost $90. The Beaglebone Black came along earlier this year, and finally brought the price down to just $45, making it suddenly very competitive with the Raspberry Pi and other DIY-oriented Single-board computers.