Here is everything you need to know about Raspberry Pi, the tiny, ultra-cheap computer that has taken the world by storm.
The Raspberry Pi’s success defied expectations. Conceived as an affordable computer for getting kids to learn how to code, its creators thought they’d sell 1,000 – they’ve now sold more than 40 million.
In March 2020 alone, the company shipped a staggering 640,000 units — its second-highest sales month on record. And with the arrival of the 8 GB Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, the humble, single-board Raspberry Pi is beginning to take on the mainstream PC market with increasing gusto.
Needless to say, this British-designed credit card-sized computer has been nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, and this Raspberry Pi cheat sheet explains why. This article is also available as a download: Cheat sheet: Raspberry Pi (free PDF).
SEE: Inside the Raspberry Pi: The story of the $35 computer that changed the world (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)
The Raspberry Pi is a family of credit card-sized single board computers that have become the best-selling U.K. computers of all time.
The key to the Raspberry Pi’s success has been its price. It’s not the most powerful machine in the world, but for less than $60 it offers a computer that can be used to build homebrew electronics and put together a vast range of devices on a budget.
The charitable foundation behind the Raspberry Pi hasn’t rested on its laurels, upgrading the Pi’s specs three times since launch, while keeping the price at $35–$55. In that time, the Raspberry Pi’s processing power has grown more than tenfold, putting the Pi into the category of a machine that could be used as an everyday PC.
In hard specs, the top-end model, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, has a 1.5 GHz quad-core, 64-bit Arm Cortex A72-based, quad-core processor, up to 8 GB RAM, a VideoCore VI capable of 4K video playback, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet, and two USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports. There’s now support for SSD drives, so you don’t need to use slow SD cards to store files for your Raspberry Pi.
The Raspberry Pi was created as an affordable machine that would help kids learn how computers work but has arguably become far more than that.
You can use the Raspberry Pi as a desktop PC replacement, particularly if you choose the top-end 8 GB Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, though there’s myriad possible uses for the board, including media center, file server, weather station, virtual assistant, smart home hub, “high performance” clusters, virtual desktop thin client, robot brain, LEGO-powered book scanner, retro games console, eye-in-the-sky, drone guidance, low-cost ventilator, aircraft tracker and more. You name it, and someone’s done it.
If none of these take your fancy, then there’s always the option of using the wealth of programming-oriented software bundled with the Pi’s official Raspberry Pi OS — formerly Raspbian — to learn about coding and hardware hacking.
The Raspberry Pi has been the bedrock of some spectacular creations and has even made the trip to the International Space Station, with the latest generation of the official AstroPi expansion boards recently launched to update the existing space-borne hardware.
Setting up the Raspberry Pi is slightly different, and possibly slightly more complex, than your average computer desktop, though not by much. There are easy-to-follow guides online, and the NOOBS (New Out-Of-Box Software) installer makes getting the computer up and running relatively easy. If you prefer to make your own boot media, Raspberry Pi’s desktop Imager software also simplifies installing Raspberry Pi OS and a curated set of other Linux releases, including 64-bit builds of Ubuntu for newer Pi hardware. It also works with SSD storage for better performance.
Depending on what you want to do, NOOBS can install various operating systems — for example, Raspberry Pi OS for a desktop PC or the software OSMC for a media center. Once set up with the Raspberry Pi’s official OS, you have all the basics you’d expect from a desktop PC, such as a word processor, web browser and email client, and you are able to choose more apps from the Recommended Software menu. On first boot, Raspberry Pi OS also presents users with a setup wizard that handles Wi-Fi connectivity and other initial tasks.
Two versions of Raspberry Pi OS are currently available, both based on Debian, the long-term-support Buster and the newer Bullseye release.
SEE: You can learn Raspberry Pi, how to build your own IoT, coding and more with this course bundle (TechRepublic Academy)
The price of the Raspberry Pi is a bone of contention for some, who point out that while the board itself sells from $35, getting a Pi up and running requires a keyboard, likely a mouse, screen, power supply and SD card. The cost of this equipment adds up to more than that of the Raspberry Pi itself, however, as the charitable foundation that makes the Pi rightly point out, most households have some, if not all, of this equipment. The Pi’s variety of display ports also means it can use old and new TVs, as well as monitors, as a display.
As the Raspberry Pi’s specs have improved, and the community has discovered new ways of tapping its hardware, people have found new uses for the board. The Raspberry Pi already runs a plethora of Linux-based operating systems, but the stable of OSs it can run is expanding all the time, and already runs the gamut from the venerable RiscOS through to work-in-progress versions of Android to the Chromium OS-based FlintOS.
You can even get a form of Microsoft Windows to runs on the board. The Raspberry Pi runs Windows 10 IoT Core, a cut-down version of Windows 10 which was not originally designed to run a desktop PC but instead to help hardware hackers prototype Internet of Things (IoT) appliances using the Pi.
Not only are there four different generations of Raspberry Pi, but there are a variety of models. The Raspberry Pi 4 is available as the Model B, while the 3 is sold as the Model A, Model B and Model B+, basically an overclocked Model B with faster Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, the Raspberry Pi 2 is available as a Model B, and the Raspberry Pi 1 as the Model B and the lesser spec-ed Model A. The Raspberry Pi 1 Model A lacks Ethernet, has less memory than the B and only has one USB port; however, it sells for the lower price of $25 and draws less power.
Generally, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B is the better choice than the Pi 3, as it offers better specs for the same price. But, the Raspberry Pi 1, while a good deal less powerful, is cheaper than the Pi 3 and also available in the more compact, less power-hungry Model A configuration.
The Raspberry Pi 4 has also been built into the organization’s first desktop computer, the Pi 400. Built into a keyboard based on the official keyboard accessory, the Pi 400 is a 4 GB PC with all the familiar ports, including the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO connector. It’s available in a kit with a mouse or as a standalone device, with different versions for different countries supporting their own keyboard layouts. Starting at $70, it’s the modern successor to the 1980s 8-bit computers that inspired funder Eben Upton.
Raspberry Pi creator and co-founder Eben Upton
And if you thought $35 was as cheap as a useful computer could be, then think again. The even more diminutive Raspberry Pi Zero is priced at just $5. Despite costing less than a Big Mac meal, the Pi Zero can do useful work, with tech specs slightly better than those of the original Raspberry Pi Model B that launched in 2012.
The Raspberry Pi Zero’s price, tiny size and low power consumption means it has obvious limitations compared to its bigger siblings. It only has one USB On-The-Go port, and the original Pi Zero lacks network connectivity. However, the $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W supports 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. It’s recently been joined by the $15 Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W, with a higher performance 64-bit processor based on the one used in the Raspberry Pi 3, that promises up to a 5x performance boost. It also upgrades Bluetooth support to 4.2, with Bluetooth Low Energy.
The Raspberry Pi Zero is less suited to being used as a PC and more to being packed into a standalone IoT device or automated appliance, where space is at a premium or minimal power draw is needed. If you want to hook the Zero up to homemade circuit boards and other DIY hardware, you’ll have to solder the pins onto the board’s unpopulated GPIO header.
For pure maker projects, there’s now the $4 Raspberry Pi Pico, built around the organization’s own RP2040 microcontroller. It’s an ideal platform for getting started with building your own IoT hardware, with the RP2040 also being built into lighting controllers and keypads by partner companies.
SEE: IT hardware procurement policy (TechRepublic Premium)
Here’s a quick specs overview of each Raspberry Pi model. You can find more detail in our Raspberry Pi buyer’s guide.
The Raspberry Pi 4 Model B uses a 1.5GHz 64-bit quad-core Arm Cortex-A72 CPU, has three RAM options (2 GB, 4 GB, 8 GB), gigabit Ethernet, integrated 802.11ac/n wireless LAN and Bluetooth 5.0. The latest revisions boost speed to 1.8GHz.
The Raspberry Pi 400 is based on the 4 GB Pi 4 but with a 1.8GHz processor and is built into a standard 78- or 79-key keyboard. It’s also available as a kit with power supply, mouse and HDMI cable.
The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ uses a 1.4GHz 64-bit quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 CPU, has 1 GB RAM, gigabit Ethernet, integrated 802.11ac/n wireless LAN and Bluetooth 4.2.
The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B uses a 1.2GHz 64-bit quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 CPU, has 1 GB RAM, integrated 802.11n wireless LAN and Bluetooth 4.1.
The Raspberry Pi 2 shares many specs with the Raspberry Pi 1 B+, originally used a 900MHz quad-core Arm Cortex-A7 CPU and has 1 GB RAM. More recent versions of the Raspberry Pi 2 use a 900MHz Arm Cortex-A53 CPU.
The Raspberry Pi Model B+ is the final revision of the original Raspberry Pi 1. It has 512MB RAM, four USB ports, 40 GPIO pins and an Ethernet port.
The Raspberry Pi Model A+ is the low-cost variant of the Raspberry Pi 1. It has 512MB RAM, one USB port, 40 GPIO pins and no Ethernet port.
The Raspberry Pi Zero and Raspberry Pi Zero W/WH are half the size of the Model A+ and feature a 1GHz single-core CPU and 512MB RAM, mini-HDMI and USB On-The-Go ports and a camera connector. The Raspberry Pi Zero W also has integrated 802.11n wireless LAN and Bluetooth 4.1. The Raspberry Pi Zero WH is identical to the Zero W but comes with a pre-soldered header on the GPIO ports.
The Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W has the same ports and memory as the earlier versions, though it offers a new 1GHz Raspberry Pi-designed SOC based on the same quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex as used by the Raspberry Pi 3 B+.
The Raspberry Pi Pico is built on the RP2040 dual-core ARM Cortex M0 with 264KB of internal RAM and 2GB of flash storage. It has 26 GPIO pins and support for Programmable IO with eight state machines. A single USB 1.1 port provides connectivity and power. The RP2040 is also available on its own as a chip, ready for your own hardware.
Raspberry Pi 4 Model B
The Raspberry Pi is a great machine for learning about how to get to grips with computers and is available at a price that makes it hugely accessible.
The machine’s official Raspberry Pi OS is loaded with tools for learning how to program, from the drag-and-drop coding offered by Scratch to various aids for writing and debugging the programming language Python and Java.
Work continues to improve how the OS performs and looks, including a visual overhaul with the release of the Pixel desktop, ongoing upgrades to the performance of the Chromium browser, new startup wizards, and a greater range of software verified to work well on the Pi. But as the abundance of Pi-powered electronics suggests, the board will let you dabble in more than just software.
If you want to break out the soldering iron and start learning about breadboards (think pluggable circuit boards rather than freshly cut loaves), then the Raspberry Pi’s also got you covered.
For hardware hacking, the Raspberry Pi is equipped with 40 general-purpose input/output pins and electrical channels that allow the board to communicate with other computers or electronics and are key to the Pi’s use in some of the more ambitious hardware projects involving robots and drones. Getting started with hardware is relatively easy, thanks to the abundance of starter kits that bundle the boards and other electronics you need.
Today, the Raspberry Pi is much more than just a cheap, tiny board running Linux, thanks to an ecosystem of products — some official, some unofficial — that extend what the board can do, from the official $50 High Quality Camera to add-on boards that combine the Pi with the Arduino prototyping platform.
Various third parties have built new Raspberry Pi-powered creations aimed at furthering the foundation’s mission of educating a new generation about computing — whether it’s the Pi-Top, a build it yourself Pi-powered laptop with a neon green case, or the kid-friendly computer kit Kano.
The board has proven to be a firm favorite not only with the community of amateur hackers who leaped on the Raspberry Pi after its release but also many schoolchildren worldwide.
More recently, the Raspberry Pi has transcended its roots as a hobbyist darling and is beginning to be used by businesses to drive appliances and prototype electronics as well as for industrial control, such as factory automation and DevOps monitoring, and as a desktop thin client. The Raspberry Pi 4 Model B saw popularity skyrocket during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic as consumers scrambled to find affordable solutions for working and learning from home. At the same time, enterprising medical researchers in Columbia began experimenting with Raspberry Pi boards to determine whether they could offer a low-cost means of powering ventilators for treating COVID-19 patients.
SEE: Coronavirus put digital divide in the spotlight, says Raspberry Pi Foundation (TechRepublic)
To complement its use by business, the foundation released the Raspberry Pi compute module, which packs the processor and memory of the Pi onto a slim board the size of a memory module. The idea of the compute board is to make it easier to build a custom appliance around the Raspberry Pi, as the compute module can be plugged into a baseboard with all of the necessary peripheral circuitry. A version of the compute module based on the Raspberry Pi 3 was released early in 2017. It’s still available, but you can now buy the CM4 based on the Raspberry Pi 4 and with built-in support for PCIe expansion and onboard eMMC storage.
While the Raspberry Pi wasn’t the first single board computer, its success helped spawn a host of competitors.
These challengers typically replicate the board’s design but either at a higher spec, such as the RockPi 4C, Hardkernel Odroid-C4, or at a lower price, such as the Orange Pi. Nvidia’s Jetson offers Pi-like performance with a focus on its own GPU-based AI accelerators. If you prefer an Intel PC, there’s even the Latte Panda family of devices.
SEE: The best Raspberry Pi accessories and alternatives for 2021 (TechRepublic)
Boards like the Odroid-C4 expose the fact the Raspberry Pi doesn’t necessarily offer the best bang for your buck in this ultra-low price range. The flipside is that most of these Raspberry Pi rivals don’t enjoy the range of good quality software and strong community support that has grown up around the Pi since it launched eight years ago. Buying a Pi also has the advantage of supporting the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity committed to furthering computer science education. Also, spec sheets don’t always tell the whole story, with boards that look more powerful on paper not always performing as expected, due to a bottleneck or poor component choice.
There are also boards that are sometimes pitched as competitors to the Raspberry Pi, but which instead complement the Pi’s strengths. Examples include Arduinos, which are microcontroller boards suited to simple repetitive tasks controlling other electronic hardware rather than the general-purpose computing tasks the Pi can handle.
The Raspberry Pi is available now and for the foreseeable future. More than 30 million Raspberry Pi boards have sold since the machine’s launch in 2012, with little sign of demand letting up. The Raspberry Pi still makes its oldest boards alongside the latest hardware
The release of the 8 GB model of the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B should further fuel the already impressive sales, while the Pi’s range of form factors is helping it break into new markets.
The Raspberry Pi is being used across the globe. What made the Raspberry Pi a massive success and continues to make it a great choice for learning about machines today is the strength of its community worldwide. The Raspberry Pi is sold in many countries, and the Raspberry Pi forums have more 260,000 members who share tips and help each other out with projects and troubleshooting.
The Raspberry Pi not only has an official website full of mods and hacks for people to get started, but there is also an official magazine that publishes news and new projects.
SEE: Develop programming skills while having lots of fun mastering Raspberry Pi and Arduino (TechRepublic Academy)
A U.K.-based, not for profit charity called the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Most of its devices are built in the U.K., in a factory in Bridgend, Wales.
The foundation’s mission is to advance computer science education, and on that front, its flagship machine has certainly made an impact.
Not only is the Pi used in schools, its availability has also coincided with an almost tripled number of people applying to study computer science at Cambridge. This bubbling up of interest is a major victory for the foundation’s founder and board co-creator Eben Upton. The Pi was partly born out of a desire to address the dwindling trickle of candidates applying to study computer science at Cambridge in the mid-2000s. Upton described the shrinking intake for one of the best computer science courses in the country as an “Oh, shit” moment that led him to begin designing the board.
The success of the Raspberry Pi has allowed the foundation to employ a large number of staff focused on creating teaching resources and running outreach projects with schools and at shows, while the foundation’s subsidiary Raspberry Pi Trading focuses on engineering and selling new boards and official products.
Easily. The Raspberry Pi is available online from Raspberry Pi official resellers as well as the official Raspberry Pi store in Cambridge in the U.K. and Micro Center stores in the U.S.
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Here is everything you need to know about Raspberry Pi, the tiny, ultra-cheap computer that has taken the world by storm.