A single-board computer is a completely functional computer built using a single circuit board. All features required in a computer are present, including the microprocessor, memory, and input/output (I/O) processor.

While a single-board computer is fully functional, it doesn’t have expansion slots for peripherals like printers and scanners. All of its functions are built-in. However, most single-board computer providers can configure them to include customized components. Still, upgrading or adding more features is not feasible unless the single-board computer is replaced.

A single-board computer is used in various applications, primarily as an embedded computer controller. You can see it at work in traffic light controllers, medical imaging systems, mobile phones, and many other devices.

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Single-board computers may sound old school and unusable in light of the features we need from our computers these days. An example of a single-board computer is Raspberry Pi (see the picture below). Its intended purpose was to help teach children basic computer science.

single-board computer

Source: https://www.electronicspecifier.com/products/communications/then-and-now-a-brief-history-of-single-board-computers 

Because of their simplicity and reliability, single-board computers are helpful in specific industries beyond the educational sector. We’ll talk more about single-board computers below. 

Where Are Single-Board Computers Used?

The reliability of single-board computers makes them suitable for critical systems that must be up and running all the time. They are used across several industries, including military defense, automotive, medical technology, telecommunications, and home appliances. Some examples of applications or systems that use single-board computers are:

  • Traffic light controllers (traffic management)
  • Medical imaging systems (medical technology)
  • Anti-lock braking systems (automotive)
  • Missile guidance systems (military defense)
  • Stability control systems (automotive)
  • Video game consoles (gaming)
  • Cellular phones (telecommunications)
  • Thermostats (home appliances)
  • Process control systems (industrial)

Single-board computers are usually part of embedded systems, a combination of hardware and software designed to perform a specific task within a more extensive system.

Despite its many advanced applications, students and technology enthusiasts continue to use single-board computers in their do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. The video below shows a tech guy building his own computer using a single-board computer.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of a Single-Board Computer?

Like other technology applications, there are benefits and drawbacks to using single-board computers. Some of these advantages and disadvantages are detailed below.

What Are the Advantages of a Single-Board Computer?

The primary benefit of using single-board computers is their dependability. They rely on a simple infrastructure without the need for complex configurations. As such, single-board computers are not prone to the common bugs and issues we encounter with desktop computers.

Single-board computers are also more resilient to vibrations and harsh environmental conditions since no additional wires or peripherals are connected.

What Are the Disadvantages of a Single-Board Computer?

One of the downsides when using single-board computers is that there is no way to upgrade them. If you need to increase the memory capacity or add more functionality, you would need to replace the single-board computer.

Additionally, since single-board computers target a niche market, they aren’t mass-produced and can be expensive.

What Is the Difference between a Single-Board Computer and a Desktop?

Single-board computers differ from the desktop computers we use in several ways. Single-board computers are built on a single circuit board, while desktop computers are built using a multi-board architecture.

A single-board computer is fully functional, but its features can’t be expanded or upgraded. In contrast, desktop computers have expansion slots that enable us to perform additional functions.

Perhaps the most significant difference between single-board computers and desktops is their market. Single-board computers target niche markets, while desktop computers are designed for everyday household and office use.

These markets dictate their production cost, another aspect that sets single-board and desktop computers apart. The motherboards used in standard desktop computers are produced in bulk for household and office use. Therefore, producing them costs less than manufacturing single-board computers targeting industrial markets.

While many people wonder how different a single-board computer is from desktops, comparing the two is futile since they have different uses.

Single-board computers help educate children about computer science. But beyond that, they are instrumental in the function of critical systems across various industries.