Getting Your Money’s Worth: Why System on Modules Provide Better Value for Industrial Applications than Community-Supported Hacker Boards

Everyone loves a good deal. Whether it is the coupon clipper, the hardcore haggler or the savvy shopper, getting what you want at the lowest possible price is an inherent human trait. But the penny pinchers who swear by lowest price as their key determining factor sometimes find out that you only get what you pay for.

Take hacker boards, for instance, also known as community boards. Starting as low as $20, these boards are part of a new manufacturing trend supported by a community of hobbyists and DIY developers that use low-cost hardware components and open-source software to create mini computer platforms. These democratic devices, where members of their respective communities offer their insight and direction, have entrenched themselves as inexpensive educational training tools for a generation striving to teach themselves computer science or as an evaluation tool.

Sold under brand names like Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Udoo, and others, hacker boards increasingly are serving as the foundation of technology projects found in IoT, wearables, robotics and mobile devices. As they move up the ecosystem from a hobbyist device to handling more advanced, commercial applications, are hacker boards an economically viable option or a costly mistake?

While these boards have an attractive lower entry price point compared to those manufacturing Computer on Module (CoM) or System on Module (SoM) devices, they tend not to share the same commercial-grade reliability, quality or standards required of industrial embedded applications. In some cases, hacker boards may contain similar feature sets or performance of SoMs but they lack the customization and flexibility found in optimized modules. In other cases, the boards may lack essential hardware needed beyond the standard order to gain functionality needed for industrial embedded products. Integrating additional functionalities increases development time and risks, and ultimately puts their costs in line with more fully designed SoMs.

In addition to the price of components, other factors that lead SoMs to be a better value than hacker boards are:

  • Longevity – Industrial products are often in service for more than 10 years. Because community boards use technology based on consumer components that change every 2 to 3 years. Changing critical hardware components requires a complete rebuild of the device and software. Even if the change is minor, the customer will still need to re-certify the product and pass the entire regulatory process. SoM manufacturers usually provide a hardware longevity guarantee and the market-leading manufacturers will even keep the software updated at no extra charge.
  • Support – Good and fast support helps shorten development time and ensures the product will continue to function as designed. SoM vendors often have in-house professional support vs. hacker board devices that rely on contributions from community forums for troubleshooting.
  • Hardware flexibility – Hacker boards are not flexible. They offer a limited technology and form factor portfolio with no configuration modification options. On the other hand, SoMs as a concept, regardless of the company that manufactures it, allow customers to build a carrier board that is designed to fit their product’s size and layout, ensuring that only the connections and components that are utilized by the product are implemented rather than having extraneous on-board circuits and connectors. In addition, SoM providers will usually offer a broader portfolio based on several CPUs and feature sets that allow some level of customization to their off-the-shelf platform. Usually, SoM providers that have in-house manufacturing will be able to offer a higher level of customization that includes removing unused components from the SoM and configuring features like performance, memory, and storage. This customization leads to a price reduction eventually.
  • Temperature – Consumer-level technology of hacker boards typically lack a wider temperature range required for industrial use. SoM companies will most likely provide several temperature rings that will cover the industrial requirements, usually up to -40 to 85 degrees Celsius.
  • Quality Standards – Originally designed as a platform to teach computing to students, hacker boards like Raspberry Pi were not developed to perform to any guaranteed level or standard. Companies developing products that must conform to quality standards, such as medical devices, need hardware rated to work without issues for years and they can only use certified hardware with full component traceability and test logs maintained for 10 years (FDA requirement) within their device.

By performing production at fully ISO 13485, 9001 and 14001 compliant facilities, SoM manufacturers can better satisfy international customers and regulatory requirements for a broad range of industries, including medical devices and related services. Fully integrated systems, rather than single board computers, provide the critical components required to optimize product design, development and manufacturing.

Low cost does not always equal best value. Hacker boards have done well to bring low-cost computing platforms to a new generation of innovators looking to leverage technology into their devices. But for those looking to build embedded industrial products with the best combination of reliability, performance and price, choosing a high-quality SoM instead of a hacker board ultimately offers the best value to customers.

To showcase the differences, we created a comparison example between Variscite, a well-known leading SoM provider, and a leading hacker board company:

CompanyVarisciteLeading Hacker Board Vendor
Price–            – Starting from $24 for a low-performance SoM.

–            – Pricing is customizable based on the required configuration.

Starting from $15 for a matching performance and can go for as low as a few Dollars for simpler boards.
Longevity and EOL10-15 years longevity guarantee.
(above the market offer)
–            – No longevity guarantees

–            – EOL usually after up to 3-4 years.

Software updates–        – Frequently updated by the company.

–        – Mature products are consistently updated as well.

– Frequently updated by community contributors.

– No official updates for mature products.

Support–        – Free personal in-house support by engineers only

– Free online documentation and guides.

– Free schematic review.

– Free software drivers and BSP.


– Community support

– Third-party extra charge support.

– Free software drivers and BSP

Flexibility–        – System on Module flexibility advantage.

–        – Vast ARM-based portfolio available with several form factor options.

– Provides customization

– SBC’s lack of flexibility

– Just a few industrial-appropriate options.

– Minor customization – RAM options only.


Manufacturing–        In-house manufacturing with complete control of the quality validation process.Produced mostly in Asia.
Temperature gradesThree options:

– Commercial 0 to 70°C

– Extended -25 to 70°C

– Industrial -40 to 85°C

Limited – 0 to 50°C
Compliance & Standards–        – Variscite’s production is certified for ISO 13485, 9001 and 14001.

–        – Meets the strict medical regulatory requirements.

– Partial compliance testing

– Do not meet the medical regulatory requirements

Pin-to-pin compatibilityTwo pin-compatible product families for easy migration between platforms at any stage of the device’s lifetime.No pin-computability


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