Rock Pi 4C Plus w/ NVMe SBC Review

Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus w/ NVMe Review
Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus w/ NVMe Review

We continue to see a storage technology evolution take place with single board computers. NVMe slots are becoming more and more prevalent on newer models. This is great news for consumers as a M.2 NVMe SSD can actually be cheaper than a SD card (and is much cheaper GB per GB).

Today I’m taking a look at the Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus V1.2 single board computer. Previous iterations of this board have had NVMe slots but it has been moved to the top of the board on this model and can properly mount a 2230 NVMe SSD. The SSD I’m using today was only $13 for a 128GB capacity drive*.

The board is quite powerful hardware-wise having 4GB of RAM and an hexa-core (6 cores) CPU configuration. We’ll be benchmarking what kind of performance we get using a configuration like this.

Let’s get started!

Hardware Used

Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus - Top View
Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus

The Rock Pi 4C Plus model always comes with 4GB of RAM. It has a hexa-core processor (6 cores) and a Mali T860MP4 GPU as well as a top-mounted M.2 slot (2230).

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Kioxia 2230 M2 NVMe Drive
Kioxia 2230 M.2 NVMe Drive

The Kioxia (Toshiba) 128GB M.2 2230 PCIe NVMe drive is much shorter than most NVMe drives (full size is 2280). It fits great with single board computers / tablets / other smaller form factors.

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Geekworm Copper Heat Sink Set
Geekworm Copper Heat Sink Set

The Geekworm copper heat sink set is designed to fit many different single board computers. It uses thermal conductive adhesive which many “cheap” heat sink kits for SBCs don’t have. Eliminates hot spots and reduces throttling. Can be further enhanced by powered cooling over the heat sinks.

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Specifications

  • 64bit hexa-core processor
    • Rockchip RK3399-T
    • Dual Cortex-72, frequency 1.5GHz
    • Quad Cortex-A53, frequency 1.0GHz
  • 4GB RAM
    • Dual-channel LPDDR4@3200Mb/s
  • Mali T860MP4 GPU
    • OpenGL ES 2.0
    • Dual 4K + 2K HDMI display
  • Gigabit Ethernet with PoE support
  • 2 USB 3.0 ports
  • 2 USB 2.0 ports
  • WiFi 5 support
  • Bluetooth 5 support
  • M.2 NVMe support

Build Quality

The board is built extremely well. The Rock Pi 4C Plus has several predecessors that have given a chance for the board to be refined over time and the bugs to be worked out.

The components are of high quality. You can see the SKHynix memory chips (and RockChip parts) below:

Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus - Top View
Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus – Top View

We can see they did use color-coded GPIO on this board which definitely makes things easier if you’re using GPIO extensively.

And the bottom view:

Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus - Bottom View
Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus – Bottom View

There is an eMMC slot on the bottom shown above. There’s a white outline around the slot showing where the eMMC would be if the slot was populated.

On earlier versions of the board the M.2 slot was sometimes on the bottom of the board which made it difficult to use without an extension cable / adapter board. You can tell that they learned from this and only put the eMMC slot on the bottom of the board (because it’s flat enough that it won’t interfere with most cases or designs).

Images Available

The official page for Rock Pi 4 downloads is here. The official images include:

  • Android 11
  • Ubuntu Server 20.04
  • Debian Bullseye Desktop

The official image selection is decent maybe with the exception of Ubuntu 20.04 which is not the current LTS version.

There is a much wider selection of unofficial images including:

  • Armbian
  • Manjaro
  • Recalbox
  • LibreELEC
  • DietPi
  • Many others

This selection is honestly quite good but one thing to note is that not all of these have been updated for the 4C Plus model yet (most of them in fact at time of writing). This should improve over time as support is added for the new model (although there are variations between the images for different revisions so be careful). Make sure you get the version for the 4C+ (and not the 4C).

Imaging M.2 NVMe Module

The Rock Pi 4C Plus works differently than the 4A / 4B / 4C. This model does not have onboard SPI flash so you must use a sacrificial SD card to hold the boot loader to boot from the SSD with this model.

The way this works is it uses your SD card to start the earliest parts of the boot process but then it mounts the SSD as your root partition instead of the SD card.

Make sure you see my Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus SSD boot guide for instructions on how to do this as I found very little instruction available online outside the Radxa wiki.

For this review I used the official Debian Bullseye desktop image.

Mounting M.2 NVMe Module

Provided that you have a 2230 size module you can use the built in mounting hole to mount your M.2 NVMe drive securely to the board.

Here’s what mine looks like mounted:

Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus - NVMe and Heat Sinks Mounted
Radxa Rock Pi 4C Plus – NVMe and Heat Sinks Mounted

Benchmarking NVMe

You can verify the performance of your drive on Pi Benchmarks using the following command:

sudo curl https://raw.githubusercontent.com/TheRemote/PiBenchmarks/master/Storage.sh | sudo bash

Here are the results:

     Category                  Test                      Result     
HDParm                    Disk Read                 370.59 MB/s              
HDParm                    Cached Disk Read          349.16 MB/s              
DD                        Disk Write                211 MB/s                 
FIO                       4k random read            47962 IOPS (191850 KB/s) 
FIO                       4k random write           12760 IOPS (51040 KB/s)  
IOZone                    4k read                   56308 KB/s               
IOZone                    4k write                  56392 KB/s               
IOZone                    4k random read            38025 KB/s               
IOZone                    4k random write           59999 KB/s               

                          Score: 14,003                                       

The full Rock Pi 4C Plus benchmark can be viewed here on Pi Benchmarks.

Oh yeah, that’s definitely NVMe performance for sure! I’ve only scored higher than this on 2 other boards: the CM4 and the ODROID M1. Once you get it set as your root partition this board is smoking fast.

Pros / Cons

Pros

  • Extremely powerful board widely available for <$100
  • Top mounted 2230 M.2 NVMe slot gives incredible I/O performance
  • Expandable eMMC option

Cons

  • No higher or lower memory options than 4GB
  • Image selection is limited for newer 4C Plus model at time of writing
  • Does not have SPI flash (nor can any be added) unlike 4A / 4B / 4C — to boot from NVMe you need to use a SD card as the boot loader

Conclusion

This was my first board I’ve reviewed from Radxa and I really like it! I do have a Radxa Zero (with eMMC) that I preordered a while ago that I will be reviewing as soon as I get my hands on it. I’m impressed by how much support there is for the Rock Pi series of boards from third party images / vendors.

This board makes a lot more sense to buy to me than a Raspberry Pi 4 right now. They are under $100 and are more powerful than a Pi 4. They have a GPU that is capable of good desktop performance. They’re relatively easy to get your hands on at time of writing as well.

I definitely recommend picking up one of the cheap $10-$13 128GB 2230 M.2 NVMe drives. They are essentially cheaper than most SD cards (and much cheaper than a 128GB SD card) and you can use it as a permanent mount in the board and enjoy much higher performance and larger storage capacities right from the start. This will enhance your experience.

We are going to see more and more single board computers with M.2 NVMe connectors like this. It is literally cheaper and the performance is an order of magnitude higher than even the best application-class SD cards. I will be surprised if the Pi 5 doesn’t have one of these.

I recommend the Rock Pi 4C Plus as a pretty powerful alternative to the Pi. It’s not perfect since you have to sacrifice a SD card to actually boot from the NVMe but for the price and in this market it’s definitely worth considering!

Other Resources

SSD booting on the Rock Pi 4C Plus is a little tricky so definitely see my SSD / NVMe boot guide for the Rock Pi 4C Plus

I have a pretty steadily growing collection of reviews for other single board computers available here

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PaqMan3D
PaqMan3D
26 days ago

Just bought this earlier today for ps1 emulation and appreciate the review!