It’s rare that we get something in with seemingly so much promise that we become utterly dejected with and disappointed by. Unfortunately the CI20 is just this type of device and the first thing we’re going to tell you in this review that we don’t really like the product.
If it also wasn’t clear, we were actually quite looking forward to seeing what the CI20 could do. For only double the very low asking price of the Raspberry Pi, the CI20 offers a dual-core 1.2 GHz processor and a full GB of RAM on its Ingenic-branded system-on-a-chip. It also has native Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which are the functions we yearn for the most in a Raspberry Pi – so much so that if this performed only as well as the Pi we’d be happy. For makers, there are a few more random I/O ports as well as a 25 pin GPIO and various UART pins dotted around. Basically, it should be superior to the original Model B Raspberry Pi in every way.
Coming pre-installed on the CI20 is a slightly modified version of Android 4.4, which, to be fair, is still quite impressive; usually we’d expect to see a much older version of Android on something like this. It took about five or so minutes for the CI20 to boot into Android, though, and upon completing boot we found the barest selection of apps available, and no access to the Play Store. With custom versions of Android, like Cyanogenmod and this CI20 image, Google does not legally allow access to the Play store and some of the core Android apps such as Gmail. Along with the Chrome browser is a calculator, a calendar, three benchmarking apps and a file explorer; the explorer at least allows you to sideload apps but it’s hardly ideal.
Performance-wise, it’s only okay. It was able to play high definition YouTube videos straight away with no issues, although the audio was not working via the HDMI port. We actually had to connect via an Ethernet cable as the Wi-Fi was extremely weak, unable to pick up the router only a few metres away in the next room.
Installing Debian results in slightly better performance all round, booting in only a couple of minutes and making better use of the HDMI port. In terms of performance, this version of Debian is less optimised for the CI20 than Raspbian is for the Pi, resulting in roughly the same performance. While we mentioned that this would be enough for us, this was under the proviso that the Wi-Fi worked, which it basically doesn’t.
Installing other operating systems is currently quite limited, only having the choice of the aforementioned Debian and Android images. To install them requires a bit of wizardry, moving around jumpers on the board to specific locations and pressing the generically labelled ‘button’ during boot time to allow installation to the onboard flash.
Overall, it’s not the best piece of hardware. The MIPS architecture is badly supported in this arena and the unoptimised distros and OSes really showed this. For more day-to-day use and programming, it doesn’t really hold a candle to the still excellent Raspberry Pi. For making and projects though, it does have a bit of an advantage if you can manage to use it properly, although it is a little bit bigger and more awkwardly shaped.
It’s definitely no Raspberry Pi killer though.
The CI20 really seems to have very limited use over some of the other mini-PCs and single board computers out there, and the price isn’t particularly a draw either. The hardware issues and limited operating systems result in a fairly lacklustre piece of kit that really had a lot of potential.