Best Single Board Computer for Emulation [2021 Reviewed]

An Overview of the 3 Best Single Board Computers for Emulation

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Hey there! We appreciate you stopping by, if you’re not in the mood for reading the entire buying guide, we’d like you to know that after going through several SBCs we have chosen the Raspberry Pi 4 as the best single board computer for emulation due to its solid features and affordability. If your budget allows, then the LattePanda 2G/32GB V1.0 Edition is loaded with a lot more features but comes at a higher price. Good luck!

Introduction

Retro gaming is the new fad amongst enthusiasts! Playing old games not only provides a feeling of nostalgia, but streaming them online, on social media, also garners quite a bit of attention. More and more users are wanting to play old SNES or Nintendo 64 games. Going out and buying these consoles is not always the best option since most are obsolete, cost a lot of money and also require a TV.

You’d be hard-pressed to find some online on sites such as Amazon or eBay, however the asking price for such antiques is absurd. Therefore, the best option for emulating retro games would be to get cheap inexpensive, single-board computers (SBCs) which you can transform into your very own gaming consoles!

Since retro games are not as graphically intensive, having an insane level of computing power isn’t necessary. This is why SBCs are perfect! they are much cheaper compared to say, a laptop or a desktop, which makes them a much better option. Another factor is that they come in a really compact and small form factor, which makes them easily portable.

While you might not be able to emulate the majority of games from newer systems such as the PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii U or the GameCube, these boards are more than capable of running ROMs from the SNES, N64 or the PlayStation. They are mainly made for real world applications, so navigating the market as a layman consumer may feel daunting. Therefore, we’ve compiled a list of the best computers for single board emulation, excellent for your retro gaming needs

Top 3 Single Board Computers for Emulation

ASUS SBC Tinker board RK3288

Starting our list off is the ASUS SBC Tinker board RK3288. The tinker board is an incredibly compact sleek looking SBC that offers portability to ensure your gaming needs are met on the go. The ASUS Tinker board comes packed with Rockchip Quad-Core RK3288 1.8GHz CPU and utilizes a 600MHz Mali-T764 GPU with 2GB of video memory for graphics. The whopping 2 GBs of video memory mean that the board is capable of emulating games from beefier systems as well the PlayStation 1, PSP and Dreamcast.

The Tinker board runs on Tinker OS out of the box, which is a Debian based distribution that supports a variety of different operating systems including superb OS support which means running build releases from the likes of Batocera, Lakka, Slash TV, and RetroPie is going to be a relatively straightforward and easy process.

One thing that helps the Tinker board stand out among other boards featured in this review is the HD Audio & UHD Video Support that this board provides. The board supports playback of 192/24bit HD audio along with offering accelerated HD & UHD ( 4K ) video playback support, which means that you can enjoy and experience your favorite retro titles in a much more crisp and vibrant way, while preserving their original glory.

The Tinker board also features 2GB of Dual Channel DDR3 memory which is an adequate amount for running most old-gen titles, although emulations of later systems such as the Wii U or the PlayStation 2 might be lacking

The Tinker board is an amazing choice for enthusiasts looking to build their own retro DIY gaming console as it features multiple DIY friendly-features including a color coded GPIO header, silkscreen PCB and color-coded pull tabs that make the process of building your own retro gaming console fairly straightforward and easy for anyone.

Coming to the connectivity side of things, the Tinker board features a high speed Gigabit LAN port for improved performance along with integrated shielded Wi-Fi for robust IOT & network connectivity. The onboard 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi allows superfast internet connectivity allowing you to maintain a stable connection during your retro gaming sessions. which would ensure solid and stable internet connectivity for your retro gaming sessions. along with Bluetooth V4.0 which is an added bonus if you want to connect external devices like wireless controllers or joysticks, which were an integral part of retro games. The Tinker board however does not come with HDMI support and you might need external adapters to connect it to an external display which is a bit of a letdown since retro gaming is meant to be experienced on larger external displays.

For storage, the Tinker Board features an onboard SD 3.0 capable Micro SD Card slot, allowing for microSD card compatibility and significantly faster performance, which in turn means that transferring your retro gaming ROMs will be relatively quicker and easier, provided that you use a compatible high speed SD card along with it.

The Tinker board also comes with a passive heatsink installed, allowing it to run cooler and quieter while packing a ton of performance in a compact form factor. Overall, this board packs quite the power when it comes to emulating your favorite retro games, however the software support on the board is a bit lackluster compared to something like a Rasberry Pi 4 and you might run into some issues trying to run certain builds on the board.

What We Liked
  • Relatively cheap
  • 4K Video Playback
  • Bluetooth and WiFi support
What We Didn’t Like
  • Lack of software support
  • No external display ports like HDMI

LattePanda 2G/32GB V1.0 Edition

When it comes to the higher end segment of Single Board Computers, you find yourself conflicted as the prices equate to almost an entry level laptop while the features provided are far inferior. Thankfully, the next addition to our review, The LattePanda rivals even the likes of entry level Windows laptops while being almost 1/3rd of the price. The LattePanda features a unique design that captivates the eye and despite being a complete powerhouse, is also sleek and has a sporty look. The etched backplate is an ode to retro gaming consoles and would perfectly compliment the aesthetic of a retro gaming console. The LattePanda is also the only and one of the few SBCs featured in this review that runs on Windows 10 instead of a Unix or ARM-based operating system.

The LattePanda is no less than a complete Windows 10 mini pc as it features an Intel Cherry Trail Z8350 Quad Core Processor with a base frequency of 1.44 Ghz which can handle the emulation of even later systems like the PlayStation 2 or GameCube with ease (provided that there are stable builds available).

Unlike other SBCs that use ARM based graphics, the LattePanda opts for Intel HD Graphics @200-500Mhz, the likes of which are used in entry level laptops. For memory the LattePanda opts for a whopping 4GB Dual channel DDR3L memory which is comparable to entry level laptops is quite a staggering amount that is pretty adequate for emulating almost every retro gaming system on the market.

Peripheral support on SBCs is often limited to a narrowed down selection of wired peripherals however the LattePanda is compatible with a wide range of joysticks, cameras, arcade sticks etc. due to having a wide selection of ports and having Windows compatibility allowing you to experience retro games in all their original glory with the required accessories.

The LattePanda comes included with an activated edition of Windows 10 Enterprise LTSB which allows you the opportunity to run other emulators that are simply not compatible with Unix distros, such as GBA emulators. It also allows you to access a wide array of ROMS that would otherwise be inaccessible through other Operating Systems. Having Windows 10 installed means that you can not only emulate older games but edit or share montages of your gaming sessions right from the comfort of your SBC which is made possible by the tremendous 4 Gigabytes of memory.

For Storage, the LattePanda offers 64 GBs of onboard storage along with the option of expandable storage using a high-speed memory card slot that supports up to 2TB memory (in an SDXC format). Using a high speed MicroSD XC card is recommended as it will ensure faster transfer speeds and quicker loading times.

It offers 1x USB 3.0 and 2x USB 2.0 ports meaning high transfer speeds throughout devices along with decreased installation times. It also includes support for 802.11n 2.4G WI-FI along with an included Wi-Fi antenna which is a nice addition allowing you to stream content at high speeds. The SBC also includes support for 100Mbps Ethernet, although the lack of Gigabit ethernet is a bit of a shame, it’s not much of a dealbreaker as you’re not going to be utilizing such high speeds anyway. It also offers HDMI and MIPI-DSI ports for video connectivity allowing you to easily hook it up to an external display to enjoy your favorite retro games on the silver screen.

The onboard touch panel overlay connector is a nice addition as it always allows you to interact with the SBC using the touch screen as opposed to using a controller, which is a nifty addition. As LattePanda runs on Windows, support for build releases isn’t going to be a problem as almost all build releases are compatible with Windows, therefore finding a release for your platform won’t be as much of a headache as it would be with something like a Rasberry Pi. The LattePanda also includes the option of adding a separate Aluminum Heatsink Cooling Fan that prevents overheating, frequency locking or reducing and keeps the system running cool and quiet.

What We Liked
  • High end specifications
  • High Speed expandable storage
  • Windows 10 compatible; versatile
What We Didn’t Like
  • A bit pricey

Seeed Studio Raspberry Pi 4

When it comes to SBCs, the most recognizable name that pops into one’s mind is the Rasberry Pi. Being used greatly for tremendous development projects over the years, the Raspberry Pi has become a household name for creative and DIY projects. Due to its incredibly powerful yet compact nature, the Raspberry Pi has been used extensively for retro gaming consoles as well and the seed Studio Raspberry Pi 4 is no exception.

Primarily designed as a mini pc for developmental projects, this SBC has quickly gained traction among retro gaming enthusiasts due to the features it offers that appeal to enthusiasts at a very competitive price.

The Raspberry Pi 4 may not hold up as much in looks compared to the other two processors featured in this guide as it features a very simple and minimalistic design that might not appeal all that much to enthusiasts who are fond of flashy or vibrant colors, but it performs flawlessly!. The interface is rather simplistic and is packed with a Quad-core Broadcom BCM2711 processor based on the Cortex-A72 (ARM v8) architecture with a 64-bit SoC clocked at 1.5GHz.

The Raspberry features excellent community support with a variety of different operating systems and build releases available for the board. With such a vast array of support and resources available for the Raspberry Pi 4, it’s no wonder why this particular board is preferred more than any other SBC on the market. There are distros and OSes that are made specifically for the Raspberry Pi and while it may not have the most beefiest specs out of all the SBCs, it certainly reigns supreme in the software arena as the support offered for the Raspberry is pretty much unparalleled even by the likes of top of the line SBCs. Due to being such a popular SBC, there are quite a lot of after market cases that you can find for the Rasberry Pi that help give it that old retro console feel.

The Rasberry Pi 4 a pretty capable retro gaming SBC that can handle the emulation of N64 and PSP ROMs with ease while giving a tough competition to other midrange SBCs when emulating higher end systems such as the GameCube and PlayStation 1. The Rasberry Pi has extensive support for a wide range of Operating Systems including but not limited to RetroPie, Lakka, Batocera and Recalbox. Having RetroPie, which is a popular OS image used for retro gaming is one of the biggest advantages of the Raspberry Pi 4 as it is relatively easy to set up and takes about 30 minutes for even a beginner to set it up. RetroPie can be used to emulate many consoles ranging from legacy ones from the 80s like the NES, to more recent ones like the Wii and PlayStation Portable.

For video playback the onboard GPU of the Rasberry Pi 4 supports 4K playback @60 frames along with support of H.256 decoding and OpenGL ES 3.0 allowing you to experience your retro games in a far more vivid and crisper resolution. It also has two micro HDMIs with smaller connectors for video output which allow you to hook your mini gaming console to external display, taking your retro gaming experience to the fullest by enjoying it on a bigger screen along with support for dual screen output.

The new SoC of the Raspberry Pi 4 allows the support of USB 3.0 which means faster loading and transfer times for your legacy ROMs. For Connectivity, the Rasberry Pi 4 comes with Gigabit Ethernet that supports theoretical speeds of up to 1000Mbps allowing you to enjoy blazing fast connections speeds, something which even the powerful LattePanda does not offer. The Rasberry Pi 4 also supports Bluetooth 5.0 meaning faster and more stable connectivity between your wireless peripherals like headphones and joysticks etc. which will ensure a more smoother gaming experience. The board has 2 × USB 3.0 ports and 2 × USB 2.0 ports allowing super-fast transfer speeds much faster than its predecessors

For memory, the Raspberry Pi comes in configurations of 1 GBs up to 8 GBs of memory however this model in particular has 8 GBs of RAM which is an astounding amount for an SBC as will be more than enough for any kinds of tasks that you can throw at it. For storage, you have to use an external Micro SD card-using the provided slot for loading operating system and data storage as there is no onboard storage available. However, the slot utilizes high speed storage with a tremendous amount of storage that allows you to jump into your retro gaming experiences in a flash.

The power connector of the Rasberry Pi 4 also utilizes a Type-C port now instead of the traditional micro-USB port that the aforementioned SBCs utilize which means it can draw in more at a more stable rate allowing you to run heavier games easily. The board features a Standard 40-pin GPIO header that is fully compatible with previous-gen boards ensuring backwards compatibility.

What We Liked
  • Extensive community and software support
  • Wide variety of software and distros available
  • Gigabit internet
  • Cost-effective
  • HDMI ports
What We Didn’t Like
  • Weaker specifications; not suitable for emulating newer titles

Final Words

Overall, all three of these boards are pretty unique in the kinds of features they provide and selecting which board is the best for you will be suited to your specific needs which is why we’re here to help you make that distinction.

The Asus Tinker Board is a cheap and affordable SBC. While it doesn’t offer as many features, it allows you a quick way to jump into the realm of retro gaming while being inexpensive. It is capable of running older ROMS from legacy consoles like the NES and the N64, the lack of software support and builds for the Tinker board make it scarce to find good and stable releases for the board. However, the board manages to run the available releases at a pretty steady rate which makes it a great choice for someone who’s more into legacy game emulation but doesn’t want to spend too much and is content with playing older games. If you fit that niche, I’d say the Asus Tinker Board is the perfect choice for you. However, you should steer clear of later systems such as the PlayStation as it struggles to emulate those due to weaker hardware.

If you’re someone that doesn’t mind spending a considerable amount on an SBC that can emulate not just older legacy titles from the NES, but also newer titles form the likes of the PlayStation 2 or the Wii, the LattePanda is the perfect choice for you. Equipped with a powerful processor and equivalently powerful graphics to complement it, the LattePanda is the perfect choice for retro gaming enthusiasts who want nothing less than the best. The aesthetic of the board also compliments the available retro gaming cases available on the market complimenting them with its black and golden aesthetic. Software support, while not as strong as the Rasberry Pi still manages to hold up and offer support for quite a lot of retro titles on the market. Overall, LattePanda is the best bet for a high-end SBC.

Finally coming to the most popular choice, the Rasberry Pi 4. If you’re someone that wants a balanced experience, running retro gaming titles while not at a hefty price, the Rasberry Pi 4 is the perfect choice for you and the top pick we’d suggest for most people looking to get into retro gaming. While not making the same trade-offs as the TinkerBoard, the Pi 4 manages to actually exceed the LattePanda in some areas such as the 8Gbs of Ram compared to the 4 on the LattePanda.

Adding to that is the amazing software support and you have a perfectly well-rounded system that is capable of playing most legacy titles from the likes of N64, SNES and DreamCast along with a few titles from PSP, PlayStation while even being able to manage emulation from newer consoles such as the PlayStation 2. The additional add-ons available for the board allow you to customize the board to your liking, even allowing you to turn your board visually into a retro console itself using the third-party cases on the market.

Therefore, as someone who’s relatively newer to retro gaming emulation, the Raspberry Pi 4 would be the best choice out of all three! It also has an extensive user community where finding resources like guides, books, tutorials and support for the board is relatively easier and is unparalleled by any other board on the market. Finding support as a layman is a relatively straightforward process and there’s a very minimal chance that a regular can’t solve a problem that they might run into.